Richard D. Kahlenberg: Ocean Hill-Brownsville, 40 Years Later
[Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2007).]
They were the pink slips that helped change American liberalism.
Forty years ago — on May 9, 1968 — the local school board in Brooklyn's black ghetto of Ocean Hill-Brownsville sent telegrams to 19 unionized educators, informing them that their employment in the district was terminated. Eighteen were white. One black teacher was mistakenly included on the list but reinstated almost immediately after the error was discovered. Although there was some ambiguity in the notices about whether the teachers were being terminated or merely transferred to another district, members of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville board repeatedly said they had "fired" the teachers, and Rhody McCoy, the local superintendent, told The New York Times: "Not one of these teachers will be allowed to teach anywhere in this city. The black community will see to that."
Fred Nauman, a United Federation of Teachers chapter leader, was among those fired. An admirer of Martin Luther King Jr. and a member of the NAACP, he was sympathetic to the plight of his black students. Unlike many teachers in ghetto districts who moved to more-affluent schools at the first opportunity, Nauman, a Holocaust survivor, started teaching at a junior high in Ocean Hill-Brownsville in 1959, and he had stayed because he enjoyed the kids. As required by the UFT contract, hearings were eventually held, and a retired African-American judge determined that there were no credible charges against the teachers. In one case, a teacher accused of allowing students to throw chairs was found to have taught in a classroom where chairs were nailed to the floor.
Liberals in New York were not sure how to react. When white people fired black people for no cause, liberals knew it was wrong; when conservative employers arbitrarily fired unionized employees, they knew which side they were on. But what was one to think when black people were firing white people, and when the assault on labor unions came from the left? The controversy unleashed a civil war within American liberalism, tearing apart groups that had hitherto been allies: black people and Jews, and civil-rights groups and organized labor.
Most upper-middle-class liberal New Yorkers, including the leadership of the New York Civil Liberties Union and the editorial pages of the Times, were sympathetic to the black community school board. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville board had been established as part of an effort to give poor minority communities greater say over the affairs of New York City schools. School integration — the old liberal dream — had run up against white flight, so an unlikely coalition of Black Power activists, like Sonny Carson, and white, patrician liberals, like Mayor John V. Lindsay and McGeorge Bundy, president of the Ford Foundation, advocated letting black communities control their own de facto segregated schools....
Shanker and Rustin warned that the racial preferences embraced in Ocean Hill-Brownsville were unleashing a second white backlash against civil rights and liberalism. The first backlash, against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, involved a salutary cleansing of the Democratic Party's unholy alliance with white racists. But the second backlash was disastrous, for it involved many Northern white people who had come to embrace King's universal version of civil rights and felt betrayed by the politics of racial preference.
In the decades after Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Bundy and other white liberals continued to push for race-conscious policies. Prior to the famous 1978 case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke — in which the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed quotas in college admissions but upheld the ability of universities to use race as a factor in admissions — Bundy penned a line in The Atlantic, later paraphrased by Justice Harry Blackmun in Bakke, that"to get past racism, we must here take account of race."
A generation later, in the 2003 University of Michigan cases contesting affirmative action, the old Lindsay-Bundy coalition of civil-rights groups allied with wealthy corporations and foundations successfully appealed to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to preserve racial preferences for another 25 years. However, in the very states whose policies were litigated in the Supreme Court — California and Michigan — white voters subsequently came roaring back and passed anti-affirmative-action ballot initiatives. This November antipreference initiatives are expected to be on the ballots in four additional states — Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, and Nebraska. Affirmative action remains deeply unpopular and carries great symbolic value. Unlike welfare or crime, issues that merely have racial overtones, racial preferences are explicitly about race, and the Democratic embrace of them surely helps solve the central political riddle of why the party of working people consistently loses the white working-class vote. Non-college-educated white people supported Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and both Bushes. According to my Century Foundation colleague Ruy Teixeira, Al Gore lost the non-college-educated white vote by 17 points in 2000, as did John Kerry by 23 points in 2004.
Forty years after Ocean Hill-Brownsville, however, liberals have a unique opportunity to heal old wounds. While tensions remain among groups pitted in that battle — some minority parents and a mostly white teaching force now fight over the No Child Left Behind Act, charter schools, and private-school vouchers; and blacks and Jews remain wary partners — Democrats may finally find a way out of the moral and political thicket of affirmative action.
Barack Obama's candidacy offers the possibility of resolving the difficult question raised in Ocean Hill-Brownsville: how to remedy the history of discrimination in this country without creating new inequities and divisions. ...
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Susan M Reverby - 4/28/2008
There is also the view from actual events on the ground and in the community. In my first job out of college, as a white woman I worked for a community organization for parents in Two Bridges (the third experimental school district in New York after Ocean Hill and IS 201 in Harlem). The only time in my life I have ever crossed a picket line (and believe me as a labor historian this was awful) was to keep the schools open. From my perspective, the strike taught be more about racial solidarity, not less. I saw the principals use the over-circulated letter to accuse those they did not like of anti-semitism. I saw teachers accuse the children of our activists with delinquency.I watched Black, Puerto Rican and Chinese-American mothers learn how to fight the schools that had cheated their children. After two years I went back to graduate school to learn more about white racism. I consider what I learned on the ground there formative for my life and the basis for solidarity, not against it.
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