Jerald Podair’s new book does an admirable job of telling all sides of the story itself in a clear and compelling fashion. Understandably frustrated with virulent white resistance to school integration, local black leaders in New York sought to establish “community control” over the schools, with the help of the city’s white elite, most notably Mayor John Lindsay and the Ford Foundation’s McGeorge Bundy. In May 1968, however, the movement turned ugly when the local Ocean Hill-Brownsville board summarily fired 18 white educators (and one black educator mistakenly included) for not supporting community control. The local school administrator, Rhody McCoy, said his ultimate goal was an all-black teaching force in the community.
Albert Shanker, president of the New York City United Federation of Teachers (UFT), protested the dismissals as a violation of the hard-won union contract requiring due process. When the school board balked at reinstating the teachers, the UFT staged a series of three strikes, which shut down the entire New York City public school system. With 1 million students stranded, in one case for more than a month, the Ocean Hill?Brownsville dispute turned into the largest and longest teachers’ strike in American history.
Black activists labeled Shanker and the UFT racist for resisting a measure of black self-government. They noted that blacks constituted just 8 percent of the New York City teaching force (compared to 20 percent of the general population) and called for an elimination of the Board of Examiners’ test for entry and promotion. They called for a curriculum teaching “black values,” which they defined as “mutuality, cooperation, and community.” And they rejected standardized testing for students, because it meant, one member of the African-American Teachers Association (ATA) said, “if a [black] wants to succeed, he has to ‘become white.’”
Many whites resisted these attacks on merit, and pointed to racism in the black community itself. In a reversal of Little Rock, black mobs surrounded white teachers who attempted to enter school, with some activists threatening to “carry you out in pine boxes.” Leaders of the ATA, Albert Vann and Leslie Campbell, called for physical separation of black and white teachers in cafeterias and lounges. Appearing on a radio station, Campbell read aloud a student’s poem dedicated to Shanker, which began, “Hey, Jew boy, with that yarmulke on your head/ You pale faced Jew boy–I wish you were dead.”
Some liberals like Michael Harrington and Bayard Rustin supported the UFT, but most of the left–including The New York Times, the Village Voice, and New York’s ACLU–joined business elites in support of community control. Shanker, who had marched for civil rights in Selma, rejected that approach, saying: “This is a strike to protect black teachers against white racists in white communities and white teachers against black racists in black communities.” Because it was illegal for teachers to strike, Shanker later served a 15-day jail sentence.
The UFT eventually prevailed and the teachers were reinstated, but a modified version of community control, in the form of decentralization, took hold in New York, and held sway until very recently. Moreover, many on the left took away a series of dubious lessons from the controversy: a tendency to view organized labor as backward and primitive; to attack standards of merit as racist; to join conservatives in downplaying the importance of integration.
Podair portrays this story clearly but runs into trouble when he provides an historical interpretation. His main message, repeated throughout the book, is that the Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy showed that “blacks and whites inhabited different perceptual universes,” viewing the same events very differently. Podair’s rhetoric parallels Bill Clinton’s refrain after the O.J. Simpson trial. As president of all the American people, Clinton had good reason to fudge the question of whether or not Simpson was guilty, but an historian’s obligation is the opposite: to truthfully render reasoned judgment, seasoned with the perspective of time. A fair reading of Podair’s evidence suggests that the path taken by the left, forged in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, has done grave damage to the promotion of equality.
The emphasis on black power and racial distinctiveness over racial integration and coalition-building has hurt progressives on a practical level, by encouraging the huge swing vote in America–the white working class–to practice their own form of identity politics and vote their race rather than their class. More generally, the attack on colorblind merit forfeited the moral high ground to conservatives, who hardly deserve it on historical grounds. In education, the emphasis on “community control” by left and right, has held out the illusory promise that separate can be equal–put to the lie, most recently, by a study finding that predominantly poor schools are 24 times less likely to perform at a high level than middle-class schools. The positing of a separate system of “black values” by black and white adults in Ocean Hill-Brownsville is not unconnected to the cruel phenomenon whereby some black students disparage academic success as “acting white.”
Finally, Ocean Hill-Brownsville helped contribute to the decline of American organized labor. Until 1968, when a labor union struck because its workers were fired without due process, liberals knew which side they were on. But in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, the left reframed the issue as white versus black, making labor the bad guys in the drama. The irony is that what black activists called “black values”–mutuality, cooperation, and community–are above all union values, which the UFT invoked with great success in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, when the membership said: If you fire 19 of us unjustly, 50,000 of us will strike.
Ocean Hill-Brownsville was a tragedy of historic proportions. Jerald Podair’s relativist book is the latest evidence that liberals still have not learned its lessons.