Revisiting Controversy

Note: Today is Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day. It seems apropos to revisit another historical controversy – one not quite so long ago. Also, I’d like to give a shout out to my cousin Ira, celebrating a milestone birthday today, having been through a lot more than most. I wish him health, happiness and many more celebrations.

In a series of previous blog posts, I wrote about the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers Strike of 1968 because it was a seminal event in both the history of New York City and my family. My Dad was a union activist and walked that picket line. That strike is seen by many as a turning point in the relationship between the Jewish- and African-American communities, damaging it so much that it reverberates to this day.

As part of my exploration of the topic I attended a panel discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society in late January of 2019. Monifa Edwards, the valedictorian from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Junior High School in 1968, began the session by talking about her journey. Ms. Edwards, who is in her 60s now, held herself like a dancer, lean and elegant. She spoke with assurance. She gave some background, noting that her family, originally from the Caribbean, valued education. Her parents were distressed that the neighborhood schools had such a poor reputation. As a result, they enrolled her in a public elementary school in Gravesend, way across the borough of Brooklyn, an opportunity offered by New York City to desegregate the schools.

She described a harrowing experience on one particular trip. The bus was surrounded by angry white parents. The driver and bus monitor vanished, and the parents started rocking the bus and yelling epithets. Monifa recounted that she could still see, in her mind’s eye, the face of one of the mothers – her hair in curlers, her face twisted in hate. Monifa was terrified and traumatized by the experience. She came home and told her parents that she was going to go to a neighborhood school next year, no matter what, even if the education offered was inferior.

I heard Monifa’s story and it broke my heart. I could imagine her fear as the bus threatened to tip over.  It made me think of my own experience in 1973 attending junior high school in Canarsie despite a boycott of the schools because parents were against the proposed busing of black students into our district. I walked a gauntlet lined by police and white demonstrators who were yelling and shaking their fists at the few of us who dared to attend classes. It was unnerving.

Monifa continued, explaining how based on this incident, and other painful experiences, she was ‘primed to be radicalized’ (her phrase). To her radicalized meant adopting the beliefs of the Black Panthers. When she asked adults around her, how could that white mother hate her so much and want to do her harm, she was told that white people were the devil. This made sense to her young self. It explained what she had experienced.  I could understand how a child would receive and accept that message. As a young teen she joined the Black Panthers in Brooklyn and they became involved in the controversy over the schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

Hearing about the Black Panthers brought back images I saw on television when I was growing up. Angry young black men, wearing berets, camo and armed to the teeth came to mind. Those images were unsettling when they flashed on the nightly news in 1967, 1968 and 1969. The energy and anger that radiated was scary – especially when coupled with footage of cities burning. It felt like revolution was in the air.

As a young white girl in Brooklyn, it was beyond my control or understanding. I remember my Dad coming home from the picket line, tired and frustrated; talking about the ‘trouble-makers’ and ‘opportunists’ that were stirring the pot. He viewed the strike as necessary to protect union rights, to ensure due process for teachers who were disciplined. He thought schools needed to be protected from local politics. I implicitly trusted my dad’s judgment – I knew him to be an ethical, thoughtful person.

Dad (on the right with the blue sport jacket) on the picket line. Screen shot from Eyes on the Prize

I later came to understand that the students and parents in the community felt unheard and disrespected in the current system. Though it wasn’t my dad’s intent, the structure he was supporting likely contributed to the community’s alienation. It was a dangerous situation – with the mostly white picketers (the teachers) in a Black neighborhood, Black Panthers on the scene, epithets flying both ways, anger bubbling to the surface, police sharpshooters on the roofs of buildings across from the junior high school. Each side believing in the righteousness of their cause. The civil rights movement, which had been nonviolent, was undergoing a change, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. earlier that year.

Years later I watched the documentary Eyes on the Prize and learned more about the Black Panthers; I gained a fuller understanding of the organization. Their ten-point program doesn’t seem quite as radical today. These are the ten points:

What We Want Now!

  1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
  2. We want full employment for our people.
  3. We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities.
  4. We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
  5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.
  6. We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.
  7. We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.
  8. We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
  9. We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black Communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
  10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.

I’m sure some of those demands would trouble people today. Freedom for all incarcerated black men is not realistic, though I can’t deny that racism is embedded in the criminal justice system. ‘Robbery by the capitalists’ is still incendiary language, as well. But the thrust of the program addresses legitimate grievances.

The Black Panther platform also included statements of belief. This part likely stoked more of the controversy.

What We Believe:

  1. We believe that Black People will not be free until we are able to determine our own destiny.
  2. We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the White American business men will not give full employment, the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.
  3. We believe that this racist government has robbed us and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules was promised 100 years ago as redistribution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities: the Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered 6,000,000 Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over 50,000,000 Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.
  4. We believe that if the White landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make a decent housing for its people.
  5. We believe in an educational system that will give our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.
  6. We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like Black people, are being victimized by the White racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military, by whatever means necessary.
  7. We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States gives us the right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self-defense.
  8. We believe that all Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.
  9. We believe that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that Black people will receive fair trials. The 14th Amendment of the U.S Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peers. A peer is a persons from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical, and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the Black community from which the Black defendant came. We have been, and are being tried by all-white juries that have no understanding of “the average reasoning man” of the Black community.
  10. When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s god entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, and that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its power in such a form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accused. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, and their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards of their future security.

When I read it now, I am first struck by the reference only to men. The organization may have been progressive, but they didn’t extend the call for liberation to Black women.  I am also struck by the rage that permeates. We needed to acknowledge that fury. We didn’t then, and we are still dealing with the consequences. While I don’t accept a number of their remedies (or all of the assumptions), some of their answers seem appropriate (decent housing, education that includes contributions beyond those of White men, and, reparations should be negotiated).  As is often the case, more attention was given to the extremes, rather than focusing what could be agreed upon.

I can certainly imagine that a young person, like Monifa, would find all of it empowering and tantalizing.

Sitting in the audience that night listening to the discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society, I thought there was a hole in the presentation. The perspective of someone like my father, whose motivations were not drenched in bigotry or a hunger for power for power’s sake, who legitimately believed that the principles of the union were at stake, was not represented. While giving parents a voice in schools is essential, it is reasonable to ask what their role should be if teaching is a respected profession. Having served as a school board member for nine years in an upstate New York suburb, I have grappled with this question. It is not easily answered. Sadly, in 1968 the union and the community could find no middle ground.

I think in one respect that panel discussion repeated the sins of the past. An important voice wasn’t heard.

Sitting in the audience that night, I was also reminded that the messages we receive as children are powerful. I absorbed messages that I still need to examine, so did Monifa Edwards.  It takes work and awareness to overcome them. Many people are not introspective, some may not want to make the effort, and others may not be willing to be honest with themselves. But if we are ever going to progress, we need to do the work.

Ms. Edwards said she had long since moved beyond her radical phase, she was able to overcome the hateful message that white people were devils.  Unfortunately, time was limited and there were other issues to discuss so we didn’t learn how that process occurred or how long it took.

How many people in the world, who are currently traumatized by violence and/or abuse, are ‘primed to be radicalized?’ How many will do the work that Ms. Edwards did to move beyond hate? And, I wonder how she feels today, eighteen months later, in the wake of continued instances of black citizens being murdered by police, seemingly without consequence.

And, finally, I wonder when we will truly learn to listen and try to understand, beyond just the words.

History

440E6530-A285-47D2-ADD3-D911AE7B67C2_1_201_a
Image from JB Shreve and the End of History

What is history? The first time I realized that the word could be broken up as ‘his’ ‘story,’ it was a revelation. Most of what we learned in school was the story of men, of particular men, those in power. One could argue that telling the story of the powerful is appropriate – after all they made the rules, they shaped the future. At least more so than ‘ordinary’ people. If we are studying the founding of America, learning about Washington and Jefferson is imperative. But, of course, that doesn’t tell the full story. Telling the full story is complicated.

So many things go into defining history. First, who is writing or telling the story? Who chooses what is included in the curriculum? Until relatively recently, historians were mostly male and mostly white. While in theory facts are facts (although in TrumpWorld perhaps we have moved into a ‘post-factual’ period), we know that making connections and analyzing information are colored by the biases and assumptions we bring to it. Our understanding is broadened and deepened when a range of perspectives are brought to bear on a topic.

It becomes a matter of balance – history can’t solely be the domain of the privileged. But, we don’t have unlimited time, even if we take into account that we send children to school for 12 years, time is short. Choices are made. It is hard to pack in all the history we want our citizens to know and provide them with a global perspective, too. When I was in elementary school in New York City in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, we were taught American history by highlighting the contributions of every different group that made up our country (maybe not every different group). We learned about Crispus Attucks, Haym Salomon, Baron Von Steuben,  Tadeus Kościuszko, Marquis de Lafayette – I came away proud that so many different people, representing different ethnicities and backgrounds, contributed. We learned about Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, etc., too. The message I took home was that the Revolution was a noble cause, with many contributors.

Looking back, I recognize that there were gaping holes and many things were romanticized. When the values that inspired the American Revolution were taught, the fact that women, Native Americans and Blacks were deliberately left out of the vision of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was not given much attention – more of a passing mention. It wasn’t until 11th grade that I learned about our treatment of indigenous people – the deliberate spreading of smallpox via blankets, for example. My children spent a great deal of time in elementary school learning about the native people of New York State – changes in curriculum were made. I don’t know if they learned about the different contributors to the Revolution, as I did. I’m not suggesting there is necessarily a trade-off, I don’t know.

In talking with friends, even friends who were in school with me, not everyone remembers learning the same stuff I recall. I was interested so I paid attention. How does that factor into all of this? Sometimes when I hear criticisms of our education because some subjects weren’t included, I think to myself, but I remember learning about that. Which brings me back to my first point – what is history and who is telling it? Perhaps we can dig up the approved curriculum for 4th grade social studies in New York City in 1968, but that may or may not be what was taught in a given classroom. And, my friend may have been absent the day we learned about Crispus Attucks.

In my limited experience doing research for this blog, I have found it challenging to settle on a ‘truth’ about events. Some are small events, like when Cutie the cat leapt out of the car window. My family agrees that it happened, but not how or why. In a more serious example, when I researched the murder of my paternal grandfather’s family in Poland by the Nazis, the specifics were hard to get a handle on. The fact of their death was indisputable, but where and how many were killed, was hard to establish. It opened my eyes to the difficulty of uncovering history and how it gets reported.

Another question is: who or what is being written about? What resources were available to reconstruct events? Could my blog constitute ‘history?’ Many of my essays are memoir, recounting experiences from 50 or more years ago, or incidents from last week. Diaries and letters are great but need context and corroboration. I don’t imagine that Donald Trump keeps a diary or writes letters, but if he did, he would hardly be a reliable source. What will history have to say about him?

You may be wondering, where am I going with this? I think these questions are central to what we are going through as a country today. We are coming to grips with a fuller picture of our history. We are raising questions about the lessons we were taught. Some feel threatened by that questioning.

We are also addressing the role of monuments and museums in the telling of that history. We are recognizing that our understanding of history evolves and then what do we do with those monuments and museums? Some might argue that our history is being rewritten and resent it because it feels like sand is shifting beneath our feet.  But it is always being rewritten – there continues to be scholarship about the fall of the Roman Empire. It is right that it is rewritten and rewritten again. No doubt it can be unsettling, but it is necessary for our growth.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in history, or that we should cast aside all that we learned. But, I do think, like with most things, we need to read critically, ask questions and be open to new interpretations.

I come back to a quote from Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I think that applies to where we are now. I think we all need to be on a quest in our lives to know better, so we can do better.

White Privilege

Not that long ago ‘check your privilege’ was being bandied about. A white male student wrote a piece in the Princeton college newspaper in 2014 calling attention to the use of the phrase. Some were resentful of the comment (including the writer of that column), some were confused by it and others welcomed the dialogue. That conversation seemed to be limited to college campuses, then the moment faded away. Now we are in another moment where this idea of ‘privilege’ has currency – maybe this time it will have more traction. The murder of George Floyd was the latest example of brutality inflicted on an African American man that would be very unlikely to happen to a white one. While it is troubling to label that difference in treatment a privilege because one would hope that any living being would be treated with more respect than Mr. Floyd was afforded, what should we call it if not privilege?

My husband and I were having a discussion the other day about that idea. “I wish there was another way to say it,” Gary commented. “People reject the idea of privilege immediately, like it doesn’t apply to them. They say, ‘no one gave me anything,’ or ‘I worked hard for everything I’ve gotten.’ It’s hard to get people to see it.” Gary was reflecting on his experience talking with a range of people who come through his office – not that it comes up that often, but when it does, he has found resistance. I know he isn’t alone.

People can only see things through their own experience. If they didn’t grow up wealthy, and then they achieved a measure of success after working hard, it can be hard to accept that they were still advantaged (if that can be a verb). We want to believe in a meritocracy and that we earned what we have achieved. But the advantages can be taken for granted, and there is no reward for calling attention to it. The status quo has a lot invested in protecting itself.

The first time I read about the ‘invisible knapsack’ (otherwise known as white privilege) was in 2001. I was participating in training to be a facilitator for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in their World of Difference program. The World of Difference program is a multicultural awareness effort that had a number of components, some geared to schools, others to workplaces. I participated in five full days of exercises, each designed to examine our assumptions about all the ‘isms’ (racism, ableism, sexism, etc.) in our society. Though I had always been socially-conscious, or thought I was, I learned a great deal about the insidious ways that our biases impact our behavior. On one of the early days of the training, we were given an article to read (I highly recommend it:

https://nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEED-Texts/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack).

 

That article was first published in 1989, 31 years ago. I read it 19 years ago. It is getting attention again now.

Interestingly, the same has happened with video from a PBS special, broadcast originally in 1976. That video (written about in an article in the New York Times recently (https://www.nytimes.com/video/nyregion/100000006654178/rosedale-documentary-where-are-they-now.html or you can watch the original documentary here on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dv0n1xfNf1E&t=3619s) is from a Bill Moyers piece on Rosedale (Queens). Rosedale is the neighborhood where Gary grew up. Last week I reposted Gary’s essay on an incident that happened to him when he was a child.

On the one hand, I find this all very discouraging. We have been having the same conversation for most of my life and yet it still comes as ‘news’ to many. I don’t understand that. On the other hand, there finally seems to be more widespread acceptance of the existence of systemic racism. I am hopeful that maybe now we can finally make some meaningful change. In the course of a given day, my mood can shift from optimism on one hand to despair on the other.

I take comfort in the words of our former president, Barack Obama, when he points out that we have made progress – that for all the anger, pain and disappointment caused by continuing tragedies, we have made steps forward. Despite the setbacks, and reminders that there is still much work to be done, there are more opportunities for African Americans in America today than there was when I was born (in 1959). Of course, that isn’t enough, as we see every day, we haven’t made nearly enough progress.

One of the things I have realized over the course of my career as a school board member and as a trainer of school board members is that we need to periodically refresh our knowledge of the fundamentals. We think, since we are doing the work day-to-day, that we know the essentials. But the truth is, we forget, or at least lose sight of them. In the midst of whatever crisis, we are facing, or even when we are carrying out the mundane day-to-day tasks, we stop thinking about the fundamentals. We can easily lose our way. That is why continuing education is critical in every field – medicine, law, every workplace. It isn’t just that we need to learn about new developments, we need to be refreshed on the core values that inform our work. There is always more to learn and more awareness to be had – and this applies to being a citizen of a democracy. I hope Americans are willing to do the work.

fullsizeoutput_fe2

Another Day, Another Controversy

Last week the New York Times headline read: Trump Targets Anti-Semitism and Israeli Boycotts on College Campuses. It caused quite a stir in the Jewish community.

The first paragraph reported that the President planned to sign an Executive Order that would permit the federal government to withhold funding to colleges that fail to combat discrimination. That didn’t sound like a bad thing, but then I read the second paragraph (I added the bold):

“The order will effectively interpret Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion, to prompt a federal law penalizing colleges and universities deemed to be shirking their responsibility to foster an open climate for minority students. In recent years, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions — or B.D.S. — movement against Israel has roiled some campuses, leaving some Jewish students feeling unwelcome or attacked.”

Reading that the Executive Order would define Judaism as a nation and/or race made the hair on my neck stand up. As I surfed the Internet looking at reaction to this, I found a number of comments picking up on Judaism as nationality as problematic. I was more disturbed by the use of the term race.  That idea, of Jews as a separate race, struck terror in my heart. After all, that was one of the essential pieces of Hitler’s plan to exterminate us. Identifying us as a race, as ‘the other,’ as subhuman, made the Holocaust possible. I came to understand this when I took a class in college called The Making of Modern Germany. That class was the single most important one I have ever taken.

Professor George Stein taught every Tuesday and Thursday for ninety minutes during the fall semester of my sophomore year at SUNY-Binghamton. He stood at the podium, wearing a dark suit and tie, his black hair meticulously combed, and lectured to us. It might sound boring, but it was anything but. It was a history class, but he drew from music, art, folklore, science and philosophy to tell the story of a nation. In the telling he gave context and insight into bigger themes – What is a nation? What is modernity? It was fascinating. It wasn’t interactive. Professor Stein may have left a bit of time for questions, but essentially it was entirely lecture and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. You could hear a pin drop in the hall. I took notes furiously; I wanted to commit to memory all he was offering because it was so compelling and comprehensive. I never considered skipping class. I wish I could take it again. I held on to some of my notebooks from college and graduate school. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find that one. Over the years I have wanted to refresh my memory any number of times.

My mind went to that class when I read about the Executive Order. I remember clearly Professor Stein explaining the importance of Hitler’s manipulation of antisemitism. It was already entrenched in Eastern Europe based on the belief that the Jews killed Christ and the widely circulated lie that Jews used the blood of Christian children as part of the Passover ritual. Professor Stein traced how those seeds were exploited to take hatred to the next level. Judaism became more than a religion – Jews became a race with unique characteristics (a whole science was devoted to elucidating the differences). This was a critical step in building the case for genocide.

This is why reading that Trump was urging the United States government to begin defining Judaism as a race was alarming and terrifying, even as it was being offered to ostensibly combat harassment of Jews on college campuses. I could easily imagine it being turned on its head, as so many things are these days, for nefarious purposes.

When I saw that the Anti-Defamation League supported the Executive Order, I thought there’s no way they would if it was as explained in the New York Times article. I read as much as I could on the Internet. That first day I found a lot written about the Executive Order, but not the order itself – which was frustrating.

As I was reading, I was thinking, wasn’t antisemitism already covered by our nation’s laws? Why was this necessary? I went back to look at the Civil Rights Act and found that Title VI, which covers any entity that receives federal funds, prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin. Title VII of the same act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex, race, national origin or religion. Obviously the two lists are not the same.

Why aren’t they the same? I didn’t do deep research into this, but since educational institutions are permitted to be connected to a religion (e.g., Jesuit colleges, parochial schools) or same sex and still receive federal funds, I think they couldn’t include those categories in Title VI. Whether we should provide public funds to institutions affiliated with a religious denomination is a discussion for another day.

In my work with NYSSBA, though, I knew that this issue of schools addressing antisemitism has been litigated many times. So, the question remained, under what authority, could schools (colleges or public schools) act against antisemitism? The Civil Rights Act is enforced largely through the Department of Justice and the Department of Education. Those agencies are responsible for interpreting the law and have offices within them that receive complaints of discrimination and/or harassment (harassment can be a form of discrimination). Over the years, dating back to the Bush II administration, they issued guidance documents (the DOE calls them ‘Dear Colleague’ letters) which interpreted Title VI as covering religion. In the aftermath of September 11th, when Muslim students were especially vulnerable, the government explained that when students were targeted for being perceived as a different race the school district had an obligation to protect those being harassed. So, using the same logic, Jewish students and Sikh students (or any student whose religious practice or nation of origin may make them appear to be of a different race) are covered by Title VI.

Then the question becomes, what does this Executive Order offer that is different? After looking into this, I have no answer.  I came to the conclusion that it remains to be seen whether this is a positive thing, or a dangerous step, or not really a change at all (and just political pandering) – as with many things, it depends on how it is interpreted and implemented.

[By the way, it is worth noting that states also have laws that offer protections, too. New York State’s anti-discrimination laws are much more expansive than federal law and includes LGBT and disabled citizens, among others.]

The Executive Order was finally posted by the White House the next day – needless to say, I read it. I will point out that the Executive Order, and the source document it is based upon (a definition of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Recognition Alliance) does not say that Judaism is a race or a nation. It also does not say that being anti-Israel is equivalent to being anti-Semitic, despite what Jared Kushner opines; though that is where the waters get muddy. The IHRA document specifically says “….criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

As we know, on college campuses Israel gets a lot of criticism. Where it crosses over into antisemitism is complicated and often in the eye of the beholder. Can a person be anti-Zionist and not be anti-Semitic? If anti-Zionism means you oppose the existence of the State of Israel, it is hard not to get a whiff or more of antisemitism (other than Jews who believe that God – the messiah – is the only one that can create a Jewish homeland).

The founding of the State of Israel was, in my opinion, as legitimate as any nation. After the Holocaust, it was clear that Jews needed a homeland. As a result, the U.N. defined and authorized its creation. Every country I can think of has disputed boundaries and conquests in its history that contributed to their current configuration. The United States, Russia, China, Great Britain all come to mind. I’m not aware of any country that wasn’t built on the blood of a people in some way or another. Israel is no different.

I have lots of criticisms of Israel and how it conducts itself, especially under Netanyahu. But to suggest that it deserves to be isolated in the same way as North Korea or Iran, or to question its right to exist, is a bridge way too far. Students should be able to study in Israel. Academic exchanges should be welcomed. Individuals can choose not to buy its products if they don’t like their policies, as I don’t shop Walmart. But, I am not seeking to have Walmart driven into the sea, or cutting it off from civilized society. I would like Walmart to change – to treat its employees fairly and to operate as a good corporate citizen. Maybe it isn’t a perfect analogy, but I think it makes the point.

If this Executive Order is used to stifle protest of Israel’s actions, then it will be a misuse of governmental authority. If it bolsters the federal government’s authority to investigate harassment of Jews, that would be a positive outcome given the frightening increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes. If it gives authorities more cover, and suggests more political will to confront it, then maybe it can be helpful.

In sum, my two takeaways from this are: (1) the New York Times did a poor job of reporting on this and contributed mightily to the controversy by mischaracterizing the Executive Order. Some might not be surprised at that, I am disappointed.

And, (2) as with all things with the Trump administration, we will have to be vigilant to make sure power isn’t abused or turned on its head.

What’s the Deal, America?

It might seem that I have exhausted the topic of the teacher’s strike. But, alas, I have not! There is one more central issue to the strike that was not addressed that night at the Brooklyn Historical Society and that was: Do we value teachers? This question is still resonant today. Just look at Oakland where teachers walked out two weeks ago (they settled a couple of days ago) and shortly before that, the teachers’ strike in Los Angeles as examples.

WireAP_d82c7f1407384fee8fd0a4feb7467a96_16x9_992
Associated Press photo – February 21, 2019 – Community members supporting Oakland teachers’ strike

Those two labor actions were, in large part, about pay – teachers need second jobs to make ends meet. The 1968 dispute in New York City didn’t hinge on salary, but that isn’t the only measure of whether we value the profession.

One aspect of treating teachers professionally is to provide due process before reassignment or termination. The attempt by the Ocean Hill Brownsville school board to fire people who had tenure without a hearing was offensive to my father. He would not want to protect teachers who were lazy or incompetent, but they were entitled to be heard first.

There is a reason that the teaching profession includes tenure. Tenure existed long before there were teachers’ unions (tenure came into practice in the early in the 1900s; though there were attempts to organize earlier, the UFT wasn’t formed until 1960). The reason was to protect teachers from political influence or corruption. People understood there was a danger that a new principal could come in, fire the staff and hire their relatives or give jobs to the highest bidders. There has long been recognition that the education of our children held a special status that needed to be protected.

As with all things, though, there is a need for balance and there is a perception that things have gotten out of whack with it becoming a long and expensive process to terminate a terrible teacher. In 1968 my Dad had no tolerance for those who were taking advantage of the system, skating by, making no effort. He had his own scornful word for them, “deadwood.” I don’t know if he invented that term, but I heard it often enough when Dad expressed his frustration with a colleague. It is an effective metaphor:  decaying branches clogging up a stream. But, he didn’t believe the majority of the teaching force was “deadwood” or racist. Finding the balance between due process and ridding the system of deadwood continues to be a struggle. Remember the headlines on the front page of the New York Post not long ago? – with pictures of ‘rubber rooms’ for teachers that can’t be trusted in the classroom but can’t be terminated either. We need to find the right balance, but that still doesn’t answer the central question of how much do we value teachers.

Our attitude toward teachers in America is a funny thing. We have a kind of schizophrenia about them. One the one hand, we think anyone can teach, everyone thinks they know how things should be done in the classroom. After all, we’ve all gone to school. And then there’s the old saying, “He who can does; he who cannot, teaches.” Hardly a statement of praise. As noted above, teachers are underpaid and that continues to be a sticking point. It’s also been considered ‘women’s work’ dating back to the nation’s westward expansion when the ‘schoolmarm’ taught in one room schoolhouses. Women’s work has never been given its due.

On the other hand, we expect so much of teachers. When poor achievement scores are reported, teachers are blamed. In New York State we require that they earn a master’s degree within five years of their appointment. There are demanding continuing education requirements – I believe 75 hours every five years.

We simultaneously believe that kids right out of college can step into a classroom to teach (as in Teach for America and exemplified by Rhody McCoy hiring strike replacements who were fresh out of college subject to a single interview) and yet we complain that inexperienced, uncertified teachers are disproportionately assigned to poor, underserved schools, and offer that as emblematic of the inequity of the system.

A number of years ago I had an interesting conversation with a gentleman who grew up in Finland. If you read about successful school systems, Finland is often cited as exemplary. He explained that students who went into teaching were the best and the brightest; teachers there were expected to have the equivalent of a PhD, were as revered as medical doctors, and were paid accordingly. Not exactly a description of our situation.

So, what’s the deal, America? Can anyone teach? Or, is it a profession? And, if it is a profession, is it an esteemed one that we are willing to pay for? We can’t have it both ways.

More Questions

After listening to the panelists, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was any substance to the union’s side of the conflict. The story that was told that night at the Brooklyn Historical Society was eye-opening, but, there was a glaring omission. No one mentioned the issue of teacher professionalism as a source of conflict.

For my father, and others like him, this was probably the single strongest motivating factor in supporting the strike. The attitude and actions taken in Ocean Hill-Brownsville exhibited a blatant disregard for the professionalism of teachers, in three ways: by having the community dictate curriculum, by hiring uncertified, inexperienced replacements, and by dismissing teachers without due process. All of that would have felt like a personal insult to someone like my dad.

Dad, Barry Brody, got his B.A. from Brooklyn College, then did two years in the Air Force. He went into teaching, earning his master’s in education from Columbia Teacher’s College. He went on to get a master’s in economics from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana (coincidentally Al Shanker’s alma mater). He spent most summers furthering his education. He would apply for grants to study. He spent a summer at Wharton, another at Weslyean, then Clark University in Worcester, MA, three summers in Illinois and one at the University of Colorado. Our family joined him, this was how we vacationed (which is another story). He was always a voracious reader. If there was a new biography of Lincoln or Jefferson, he would read it – and critique it. He read widely, though history was his passion.

He took pride in his scholarship and his teaching. If there was one overriding lesson he imparted to his three children, though there were many, it was to do your job to the best of your ability, no matter what it was. If you were a busboy or a secretary, take pride in your work. You show up on time, put your nose to the grindstone, without excuses. He modeled that behavior. There was dignity and pride in a job well done. My brothers and I took that lesson to heart and it served us well.

I believe the issues raised by the decentralization experiment in Ocean Hill-Brownsville struck at the heart of my dad’s sense of himself as a teacher and his pride as a professional. The fact that the changes being wrought were accompanied by so much anger, and in some quarters, hate, made it impossible to bridge the divide. Both sides were convinced of their righteousness.

The idea that parents would dictate curriculum, and I think Dad’s perception was that the plan gave parents that authority, would be an anathema to him. The notion that laypersons would make decisions about what material to include in global studies or American history likely struck him as absurd.

Today we are much more aware of the importance of incorporating the contributions of people of color and women so that a more complete and accurate picture of American and world history is provided (I’m not suggesting that the work is done). Some of that change came about precisely because of the pressure brought to bear by communities of color. Some of it has come about as more women and people of color become historians themselves.

But, today community input is still fraught. What about when a community objects to teaching evolution? Or sex education? Or, inclusion of LGBTQ literature? The list can, and does, go on and on, and I think it always will. The process of incorporating public opinion needs to be robust enough to withstand pressure from extremes, but flexible enough to evolve as new knowledge is gained. But what does that look like?

lJLqTNEwQUibEEflQIeYJg
Banned books – illustration by Jane Mount

One of the reasons I believe so strongly in public education is that a cross-section of children, representing different parts of society, learn together. And, hopefully, across communities there is a common body of knowledge imparted. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same, but if you grow up in Harlem or a rural town in central New York, I believe you should share a common understanding of science, history, math, etc. There can and should be differences that reflect the needs of the children, but a great deal of the fundamentals should be shared.

I think the panel discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society lost an opportunity to engage in a more balanced way. To discuss community control without acknowledging the legitimate concerns of teachers took away from the credibility of the program.

I am still left with the question: What should the role of the community be in curriculum? If folks reading this have opinions about it, please comment! I’d love to hear.

Going to Extremes

It may not be readily apparent why I am spending so much time writing about the events in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. But, 50 years later, there is much to be learned, especially since we find ourselves still struggling with some of the fault lines exposed during that conflict. The strike touched on racism, anti-Semitism, and education policy (the role of community in school management, the value of multiculturalism in curriculum, student discipline and the professionalism of teachers). Each of these topics resonates with me and are actively debated today. We need to learn from our history; the strike and its aftermath are rich with lessons.

J4CisY0LT5SnkqUMjX0vYg
Photo credit unknown — reprinted in Jacobin. Police blocked entry to the school building at one point during the conflict. 

One of the tragedies of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike was that it marked a serious deterioration in the relationship between African-Americans and Jewish-Americans in New York City. The two groups, through the early 1960s, were allies in the civil rights movement. The strike either created or revealed a schism.

I grew up feeling a connection to African-Americans. Because of my own people’s history, I identified with their struggle against persecution. My parents were believers in equal rights and opportunities. I never heard a racial or ethnic slur from either my mom or dad. Thinking back on it, I know they weren’t perfect, they were a product of their time and place, so I’m sure they had their prejudices, but that would have been the product of ignorance. They were life-long learners, and as they understood more, their thinking evolved. The strike and the emergence of the Black Power movement tested them.

My mother was teaching in a parochial school at the time of the strike. She was employed by the New York City Board of Education as a Title I teacher, a corrective reading specialist, but assigned to Catholic schools and yeshivas, depending on the year. Since the parochial schools were not affected by the strike, she continued to go to work, she didn’t have to cross a picket line. She remembers the time as being rife with tension, though. She taught in a neighborhood not far from Ocean-Hill Brownsville and took a subway line that travelled through there to get to work. She remembers a change in the air, she felt self-conscious on the subway as one of the few white people and previously she had not. Between the riots in cities around the country, and the friction of the strike, she felt the anxiety of the time.

My father, a social studies teacher in a NYC high school, walked the picket line. I recall him coming home and expressing anger with the leadership of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. I remember some of the names he mentioned, telling my mother of the latest inflammatory rhetoric from Sonny Carson and Rhody McCoy. Listening to the panelists at the Brooklyn Historical Society, it sounded like either the incendiary messages weren’t uttered, were overemphasized or misunderstood. It occurred to me that perhaps my father wasn’t as open-minded as I thought.

Now reading about the events, I see a fuller picture. My research revealed a number of interesting pieces.

One of the flashpoints during the strike was the assertion that the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community was anti-Semitic. As I noted in a previous post, the panelists contended that Al Shanker, the union president, was largely responsible for stoking the issue. Two of the three panelists, Ms. Edwards and Mr. Isaacs, refuted the claim that there was anti-Semitism in the community. Hearing that, I was incredulous; there is anti-Semitism in every community, just as there is racism. The degree of it, how close it is to the surface, may vary, but to deny its existence struck me as disingenuous.

Unless I misunderstood his point, Mr. Isaacs said it was the union that produced and distributed literature that included anti-Semitic language and images. I found that charge hard to believe. I could imagine that Shanker would want to consolidate his position by, as we might say today, riling up his base, but it didn’t ring true that he would go so far as to create the pamphlets.

I read news accounts, journal articles, recent scholarship and books, so much has been written about the strike. I learned that was that there was an anonymous anti-Semitic letter circulated in the junior high school in Ocean Hill-Brownsville at the time. The letter said:

‘If African-American History and Culture is to be taught to our Black Children it Must be done by African-Americans Who Identify With And Understand The Problem. It is Impossible For the Middle East Murderers of Colored People to Possibly Bring to This Important Task the Insight, The Concern, The Exposing of the Truth that is a Must If The Years of Brainwashing and Self-Hatred That Has Been Taught to Our Black Children by These Blood-sucking Exploiters and Murderers Is To Be Overcome.’

McCoy and the local Board denounced the letter. The union reprinted it, 5000 copies, as part of a leaflet which asked if this was acceptable; in effect publicizing it. Some might say Shanker exploited it.

I don’t know how strongly the African-American leadership disavowed the letter and its sentiments. I can only imagine how hurtful those thoughts would be to someone like my father. Was Mr. Isaacs suggesting that Shanker actually composed and planted the original letter, or was he criticizing the tactic of publicizing it?

It was not the only evidence of anti-Semitism. A teacher in the district read a poem by a student on WBAI, an African-American radio station in the city, called “To Albert Shanker: Anti-Seimitism.”

Hey Jew boy with that yarmulke on your head

You pale faced Jew boy I wish you were dead…

            Jew boy you took my religion and adopted it for you

            But you know that black people were the original Hebrews

            When the UN made Israel a free, independent state

            Little four and five-year-old boys threw hand grenades

            They hated the black Arab with all their might

            And you, Jew boy, said it was alright

            And then you came to America the land of the free

            Took over the school system to perpetuate white supremacy

            Cause you know, Jew boy, there’s only one reason you made it

            You had a clean white face colorless and faded.

When interviewed twenty years after the fact, the teacher had no regrets about reading the poem on the air. He said it was “raw,” but otherwise didn’t see a problem with it.

Unfortunately, there are people in the world who would write that letter and that poem today.

I come away from the panel discussion and my subsequent research believing that everyone shared responsibility for stoking racial and ethnic tensions. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville leadership was unwilling to distance itself from the extremists or troublemakers in their midst. Judging by the statements made by the panelists they still don’t acknowledge the damage done by the anti-Semitic communications. It may be true that the letter and poem didn’t represent the majority of the community. But, think of it this way:  if a single noose was to appear in a school locker, it would not be sufficient if school officials disavowed the symbolism, explained that it didn’t represent the opinion of the majority and left it at that. We would expect more, and rightly so.

It is true that the demographic of the replacement teachers was similar to those that were terminated – the majority were white and Jewish. That would support the idea that McCoy and the Board weren’t blindly anti-Semitic. But, that doesn’t address the hurt and fear engendered by the other events. The hiring of the replacements represented other problems from the union perspective (an issue I will discuss in more depth in my next blog post).

The union leadership, on the other hand, focused on those extremists to the exclusion of other legitimate concerns. There were issues with the quality of the teaching, with the atmosphere of the schools that did not welcome parental involvement and that didn’t include African-American and Puerto Rican contributions in the curriculum. And, the main point, the main issue at the heart of everything, was the problem of poor academic performance. By keeping their rhetoric focused on the hateful messages, the union didn’t appear to be willing to engage on the problems that were at the heart of the community’s anger.

There are parallels to how we engage in political discourse today. People are quick to point to the outrageous claims, or the hateful rhetoric, from the ‘other side.’ While I see the merit in bringing attention to discriminatory acts, they should not be swept under the rug, I think we go too far. The extremes get distorted and end up having more influence than they deserve. I don’t know how we reclaim some balance, but we need to give more careful thought to what we emphasize. We need to be more focused on problem-solving and substance.