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Title: The Strike That Changed New York

Title: The Strike That Changed New York
Author: Jerald E. Podair
Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven, CT

 

 

There are moments in time that define an era, and for New York’s ethnic communities of African-Americans and Jews that moment came on May 9th, 1968, when Fred Nauman, a junior high school teacher in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville area of Brooklyn and 18 other educators received letters telling them that the predominantly African-American local school district had fired them. All of the educators were whites, and most of them were Jewish.

Almost until that moment Jews and ‘blacks’ had forged a partnership that worked toward
gaining civil rights for all Americans. Jews were prominent in many civil rights groups, including
the NAACP, and Jewish ‘Freedom Riders’ were killed in Mississippi for supporting African-
American strivings for equality and civil liberty.

The teacher firings, and the (predominantly Jewish) UFT (United Federation of Teachers)
strike that ensued from them, brought nascent anti-Semitism in the black community to the fore. At best, in their response, black leaders appeared indifferent to anti-Semitism, and at worst, were accomplices to it. Egged on by such activists at Albert Vann and Leslie Campbell (who read anti-Semitic poetry over the airwaves on WBAI-FM), African-Americans came to view (UFT President) Albert Shanker’s teachers as ”white interlopers” coming to rob their children of their African-American heritage.

The white teachers relied on the standard canons of education promulgated by New York’s
central Board of Education, while the local school board wanted their African-American history and culture to be taught by teachers more sensitive to the esteem of their children.

The Jewish UFT teachers were a proxy for ‘all white men’ whom the ghetto-dwelling African-
Americans viewed as culturally keeping them down. The fact that Jews predominated in the
teaching profession was a cultural phenomenon at least partially caused by exclusion from good jobs in Corporate America and other agencies of government. The ‘merit’ system, with job and advancement opportunities offered by the Board of Education was ideal for an upwardly mobile group seeking employment.

The entire system of teacher-to-supervisor-to-department chair-to-principal, etc. was, like in
Confucist China, a system of bureaucracy that encouraged the college-educated Jewish children of immigrants to pursue careers in the government-controlled educational system. Passing examinations and accumulating graduate degrees were more than a path to material success – this was a manifestation of the marketplace competition of self-reliant individuals who are being judged by standards of  ‘objective merit’ divorced from considerations of racial group origin. For the Jewish children of immigrants who were persecuted in Europe just for being Jewish.

On the other hand, many blacks, who had suffered many inequalities in educational and
employment (aside from many other social, housing and economic) opportunities, jealously
viewed these upwardly mobile Jews who bypassed them as interlopers in the educational process of their youth.

The crisis in race relations between Jews and black that resulted from Ocean Hill-Brownsville
has still not cleared up and was one of the contributing causes of the race riot that caused the
death of Yankel Rosenbaum in Crown Heights many years later. Podair, a winner of the Allan
Nevins Prize of the Society of American Historians, has written a powerful book that tells the entire story of this confrontation from both sides of the picket lines and examines a watershed experience in modern New York City race relations.

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