Reading was an essential part of my growing up. My parents were both teachers and voracious readers. During the summer we went as a family to the library at least once a week. Wherever we were, Brooklyn, Champaign-Urbana, Worcester, we frequented the library. I remember particularly loving biographies. I believe there was a series specifically for children and I read them all. I was inspired by the stories of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, drawn to stories of heroes who overcame fear and danger to find freedom. Though my life bore no similarity to them, I wanted to be heroic. I wanted to be part of the fight for freedom and justice.
As I think about it now, there were a number of strands that came together to fuel this passion. I was aware that my paternal grandfather had lost his parents and sister in the Holocaust. My grandfather, Leo…
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:
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.
My husband and I are creatures of habit. Since we have been empty nesters, unbelievably it has been 13 years since our younger child left for college, there has been a certain predictability to our routine. After Gary gets home from work, we have dinner sitting on the couch in the family room, with the TV on. When we finish eating, we replace the dinner plate with our laptops and the TV drones on. We aren’t watching it exactly, we are doing our respective things on our computers, but the television is providing some background noise. I scroll social media, do crossword puzzles and edit blog posts. Gary reviews patients’ labs, catches up on email, surfs the news and writes his daily missive to the kids.
As background noise, Gary’s preferred TV choices include sports, episodes of Law and Order, World War II documentaries and Seinfeld. The thing all of those have in common is that he can half pay attention and still follow along, he knows them all already (except live sports; baseball, in particular is perfect for watching while doing something else). I can tolerate most of those, though I get tired of all of them (except sports, but even with that I have my limits). I have, in more recent years, gotten him to expand his list to include House Hunters. We do have more then one television. Sometimes I go upstairs and actually watch something else. But since we don’t spend that much time together – given his work schedule and his need to review labs and paperwork in the evening – I more often than not choose to sit with him. We chat here and there; it sustains our connection.
The pandemic is testing the limits of this routine. We have been home together more often for more extended periods of time. Before coronavirus, the routine was interrupted here and there by brief overnight trips I might make to the city (New York City, that is), or helping out with our granddaughter in Connecticut, or consulting assignments or plans with girlfriends. All of those activities have been suspended these past four months.
Gary and I get along great – but even we were getting on each other’s nerves. Gary got angry at me the other day for failing to lock the door between the garage and the house. I got annoyed with him for flipping channels relentlessly and not getting back to Jeopardy in time for the beginning of the second round. Nerves are getting frayed.
His limited viewing options were also getting to me. Since there has been no live sports, SNY (the New York Mets’ station) has been replaying the 1969 and 1986 World Series and other winning playoff games. Gary shows no signs of tiring of them. I, on the other hand, have had enough. Though I am a Met fan, I’ve seen the ball squirt through Bill Buckner’s legs one time too many.
In an effort to broaden our horizons, we decided to watch a TV series that we missed the first time it aired. Our son highly recommended The Wire, a show that he thought would appeal to both of us. We would not treat it as background noise, we would actually watch it. Our daughter joined us beginning in season 3 – we watch at the same time, in our respective homes (she is in Somerville, MA). It has turned out to be an interesting choice to make during this season of unrest and Black Lives Matter protests.
The series, which was originally broadcast beginning in 2002, is a case study of systemic racism. The toxic relationship between the police and the poor, drug over-run Black community in Baltimore is on full display. The lack of trust, the brutality, the disregard for Black lives is evident in episode after episode.
The series explores the impossible choices the characters face and illustrates how people lose their way, disregarding morality for expediency or quick reward or pressure from those more powerful. We are almost done watching all five seasons, we are in the middle of its final season. I hope it offers some glimmers of hope when it wraps up because it paints a pretty bleak picture. While the quality of The Wire is beyond reproach, it may not have been the wisest choice from my mental health perspective. I don’t know that I needed reminding of our societal ills at the same time that they are playing out on the streets of our country. Not surprisingly, I have been reflecting on issues of law and order; particularly the role of the police.
It all reminds me of a course I took in college called Public Law. While much of the material that was covered has receded into the mists of memory, I do recall that it was the first time I heard an argument for ‘defunding the police.’ That wasn’t the phrase the professor used, but essentially, he made a case for it – not for precisely the same reasons as we are hearing today – though racism played a role.
We examined the role of the police in society, exploring its structure and relationship to communities. This was in 1978. The ‘60s era of protest, campus unrest and clashes with the police was over. My fellow classmates were focused on their GPAs and preparing for the LSAT; they weren’t as liberal as the students who preceded us. Our professor, Tom Denyer, had a different agenda. He made the case that the police and the criminal justice system were, in effect, casting people out of society unnecessarily; that we entrusted the system with too much power. As we came to learn by the end of the semester, our professor was an anarchist. Much to his dismay, he wasn’t successful in convincing the class of his position; as I recall, students vehemently rejected his argument. I certainly wasn’t convinced. I believed then, and I believe now, that humanity is not capable of policing itself. There are evil people in the world, and there are also troubled, misguided ones. Society needs to be protected from those who can’t abide by civil society’s rules.
But Dr. Denyer opened my eyes to ideas that I had not considered. I rejected his notion that the police weren’t necessary, but the question of how to do it in an effective, equitable way, and at what cost, was clearly very complicated. It was also clear that the system was flawed. One of the costs that I had not given thought to before was the toll taken on cops themselves. We read articles about the incidence of alcoholism and suicide among police officers – it is higher than other professions. It was also the first time I thought about what exactly we were asking cops to do – solve crimes? prevent crimes? help people in trouble? keep order in the streets? All of the above? Was that reasonable?
I was forced to consider the impact of the fact that police generally see citizens at their worst. Drunk, violent, abusive, carrying weapons, selling drugs, threatening…the list can go on and on. And, even if the 911 call doesn’t involve menacing behavior, they are often seeing folks at their weakest or most vulnerable. What is the impact of that? Day after day, year after year? How does a police officer not become jaded and/or racist?
Recently, as I revisited that issue, I had an idea. Could we restructure the job so that cops rotated to play other roles in the community? Would it be possible for them, as part of their job, not as volunteers, to run recreational programs? Mentor kids? Help with community gardens? Help seniors with technology? (or other structured, concrete, viable community service efforts). My notion is that by bringing police officers, as part of their required responsibilities, into contact with community members on an equal footing, on positive projects – so that they don’t lose sight of the residents’ or their own humanity, maybe the dynamic can be changed. Maybe if, as part of their job, police officers collaborated with citizens, they wouldn’t get so calloused. Just one thought among many that might be considered if we are going to find a better way to approach law enforcement. Thoughts anyone?
Given recent events, I thought this blog entry was important to revisit. I am in the process of writing some additional pieces that involve race and police. I think this piece is a poignant example of our history.
Note: After last week’s entry (“What are you?”) several people shared their experiences with race and ethnicity. I invited them to write them up to share on the blog. Gary, my husband, took me up on the offer. One of the things that Gary and I bonded over when we first met was talking about our experiences growing up in similar neighborhoods – he was just east of JFK airport, while I was just west of it. Here is his story – in his words. Thanks, Gary.
I wanted to share a story about my favorite bicycle. I was in seventh grade when this happened and to me it encapsulates so much about racial issues growing up in New York City in the early 1970’s. At that time, the neighborhood I grew up in, Rosedale, was much like Canarsie. It was largely Italian and Irish and Jewish. There were no…
Note: This is an edited and reworked piece that I thought was timely. I continue to struggle with what is happening in our nation. The combination of Covid-19 and racism is toxic. I can only hope that we come through it to a better place, having begun to reckon with our history. I will look for opportunities to do my part. I think writing about difficult subjects, which many find hard to talk about, is one way. I would like to have those conversations. I’m not sure how to go about doing it other than to post it here. I welcome other perspectives.
In 1980 I was in graduate school. I lived in a studio apartment on West 80th Street and Columbus Avenue in Manhattan in a building owned by Columbia University. Gentrification was taking place right before my eyes as the block transformed brownstone by brownstone. Drug addicts, homeless and working-class people were displaced. Mom and Pop stores were shuttered; boutiques and trendy restaurants moved in. I can’t say I was sad about the changes. Slowly but surely the neighborhood felt safer.
I commuted to campus by subway. I gave careful thought to my route to the station to avoid the junkies and panhandlers. My shoulders hunched, eyes surveying the street, almost always in daylight, I walked quickly. I welcomed the neighborhood changes that allowed me to relax my shoulders.
These issues of community change were being discussed in my grad school classes. The question was: Can the market provide low- and middle-income housing when there is so much more money to be made in high-end housing? What is the incentive to create housing for the poor and working class? Is the government’s role to create that incentive? If so, how should it do it effectively? Almost 40 years later, we are still grappling with those questions. Meanwhile gentrification has marched through other areas of the city, particularly Brooklyn, the borough where I grew up.
I had reason to think about the changes wrought over the last three decades in New York City when I did the Five Boro Bike Tour, cycling through Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn in 2018. Those two neighborhoods were off limits in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They were hollowed out, drug infested and crime-ridden. I wouldn’t have considered visiting either one, much less bike through them. In contrast, in 2018 I cycled past art galleries and craft beer breweries.
I thought about how change happens in neighborhoods, and whether the changes were, on balance, positive. Gentrification is understood to be a bad thing especially for poor, immigrant communities. Activists who fight it paint a picture of an invading force that disempowers the current residents. While there is truth to that portrait, I think it is oversimplified.
There isn’t one monolithic army encroaching all at once – there isn’t one homogenous group of rich, white people. We need to acknowledge that when demographics are changing, it is a dynamic process. There can be hostility and an unwillingness to work with newcomers that contributes to the failure to integrate. Some may come to a neighborhood expecting their every need to be accommodated, without regard to those already there. But, not all come with that baggage. Some may come precisely to live and/or raise families in a diverse community.
I may be particularly sensitive to integrating across economic class based on my experience moving into a suburban development outside of Albany, NY. I grew up thinking suburbs were homogenous, but I learned otherwise as an adult. In my subdivision there were those who were stretching to their financial limit to live there, and there were others for whom it was very comfortable (my family fell into this latter category).
Our daughter became friends with a girl down the block. We made overtures to invite the whole family over. We were politely rebuffed. Over time, and as a result of a number of comments, I came to believe that the Mom made assumptions about us because my husband is a doctor. Maybe I was wrong, perhaps she just didn’t like us, but I think there was something more. They were of more modest means. We never got beyond neighborly friendliness. Eventually they moved away. An opportunity was lost to both of us. Economic differences can create awkwardness. It is something that is difficult, if not impossible, to talk about.
Economic status can be one barrier within communities, race is certainly another. Canarsie, the neighborhood in Brooklyn where I grew up, underwent a huge change in racial composition. Canarsie’s story of change is not one of gentrification.
In 1972 the New York City Board of Education adopted a plan to bus black students into the two predominantly white junior high schools in Canarsie. My junior high school was 98% white. My mother supported busing and I did, too. How else would we achieve integration? The plan was received with tremendous hostility by white parents. A group was organized, Concerned Citizens of Canarsie (CCC), to protest. The choice of CCC as a name, which carried echoes of the KKK, was probably purposeful. The CCC slogan ‘neighborhood schools for neighborhood children’ seemed reasonable enough on the surface. A car, with a bullhorn on the roof, cruised through the neighborhood admonishing parents to keep their children home. The vast majority listened. Even though I was only 13, I believed that racism and fear was at the heart of their objections.
A boycott of the schools went on for weeks. I was alone in my 9th grade classes; just a teacher and me. I remember walking in the main entrance through a path defined by uniformed police and sawhorses. Adults stood behind the barriers, yelling epithets at the few of us who went to school. My sense that the parents were racist was born out by their behavior.
Ultimately, the boycott failed and the busing plan was implemented. There was personal fallout; my friendship with Pia got caught in the crossfire.
Like many who lived in Canarsie, Pia’s family had recently moved from East New York to attend better schools and escape the violence. The plan to bus black students signaled the beginning of the end to them. After the boycott, Pia never invited me to hang out at her house again and she kept her distance at school.
In the aftermath, there was some white flight, but the neighborhood remained stable for a number of years. In 1972 Canarsie was about 10% black, by 1990 it shifted to just under 20%. By 2010 the neighborhood was over 80% black. While the racial composition changed, its economic status remained stable as a middle class neighborhood.
Caribbean immigrants who made Canarsie their home were looking for the same things that Jews and Italians sought years before. According to a New York Times article from 2001, “Canarsie had what many Caribbean immigrants wanted: single-family homes with backyards for barbecuing and growing roses or tomatoes, decent schools, affordable prices, quiet streets, proximity to family…”
These were shared values, but the white residents didn’t see it. It is sad that it wasn’t possible for the community to truly integrate. The exodus of white families accelerated in 1991 after the firebombing of a real estate agency that was showing homes to black families. Ironically, the firebombing was intended to frighten blacks away, but white families left. The neighborhood became homogenous again – today it is over 90% black.
In reading and thinking about the issue of neighborhood change, commonalities emerge. Problems start with assumptions based on stereotypes and ignorance. There aren’t effective mechanisms to get beyond that. We have no language to talk to each other about these subjects. Perhaps that is something we can remedy.
One essay I read analogized different segments of a community living together to ‘parallel playing,’ like toddlers who play with a set of blocks at the same time, building their own structures, but not interacting. This seems like an apt description. Maybe neighborhoods can be helped to mature beyond the ‘toddler’ stage. Perhaps opportunities can be created, by local government structures or nonprofit organizations, to facilitate community conversations, to break down assumptions and stereotypes.
We must find ways to do better. Forty years from now, I hope we aren’t asking the same questions about how to integrate communities across race and economic status.
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.
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.
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.
The panel discussion sparked so many questions and reflections. After some preliminary remarks by the moderator, Monifa Edwards, the valedictorian from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Junior High School, 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 Sheepshead Bay, across the borough, 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. Monifa continued, explaining how based on this, and other painful experiences, she was ‘primed to be radicalized’ (her phrase). 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. In the context of the time, I could understand how a child would receive and accept that message. She joined the Black Panthers, who became involved in the controversy over the schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
Hearing the idea that white people were the devil reminded me of another time I heard that sentiment. As I have written before, I facilitate workshops for school boards across New York State. The goal of the sessions is to educate board members about their roles and responsibilities and to do team building. I had worked for the Anti-Defamation League before coming to NYSSBA and been trained to facilitate workshops on multiculturalism. So, when a school board was experiencing conflict due to charges of racism, I was asked to conduct a retreat to help them through it.
The nine-member Board had only one person of color, an African-American woman. As the session progressed, after opening exercises and a discussion of identity, we got to the heart of the matter: the racism allegation. In the course of the dialogue, the African-American woman expressed her frustration that she was not being heard by her fellow board members. She explained that she grew up in a southern state and shared that her grandmother told her white people were the devil – it was a message she heard repeatedly. She wanted us to understand how hard she worked to let go of that thought; she wanted her colleagues to understand how difficult it was for her to trust them.
It took courage and self-awareness for her to admit that. The other board members at the table had not acknowledged any racist impulses or messages that they had grown up with (or may have still held).
As the discussion at that workshop continued, it emerged that all of the first-and second -year Board members (there were three of them, all of them women), shared the feeling of not being heard. It was possible that the source of the problem was in not effectively orienting new members and not explaining how to get items on the agenda, or it could have been sexism (the Board president was male), rather than racism directed at one member.
I left that Board retreat somewhat optimistic that we had made some progress. Maybe they had a better understanding of each other. Perhaps the Board President, having heard the frustration of three of the female new members, would be more inclusive. I was disappointed that the white board members hadn’t acknowledged any stereotypes or preconceived notions they had about African-Americans, but I was hopeful that they had food for thought. Perhaps as they had time to process the session, in the privacy of their own thoughts, they would examine their beliefs.
Sitting in the audience listening to the panel discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society, I was reminded that the messages we receive as children are powerful. 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. 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. I wanted to understand more (I plan to return to this subject in my next blog post).
I also wonder how many people in the world, who are currently traumatized by violence and/or abuse, are ‘primed to be radicalized.’
Next week: More on the teachers’ strike and the charges of anti-Semitism.
A notice (see above) came across my Facebook feed that caught my eye. The Brooklyn Historical Society was hosting a panel discussion about the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers’ Strike (a school district in Brooklyn). Memories were sparked of a very controversial place and time. The topic touched on issues that have interested and motivated me my entire life: education and race relations. To add to my curiosity, the strike touched my family. Though I was a child at the time, I knew my father had been involved, he was an early union organizer for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). I remembered that he walked that picket line. I clicked on the link to look at the details.
The program featured three speakers and a moderator. One was a teacher from the junior high school at the center of the controversy who crossed the picket line, the second was a student who was the valedictorian of that junior high school’s graduating class in 1969, and the final presenter was a scholar who wrote a book that took a fresh look at the conflict and its legacy. The moderator was a current resident and activist in that Brooklyn neighborhood who had family that taught in the district at that time. The teacher, Charles Isaacs, was noted as also having written a book (Inside Ocean Hill-Brownsville: A Teacher’s Education 1968-69). Conspicuously absent was anyone representing the union. Though I was a bit concerned that the presentation might be skewed, I wanted to hear what they had to say.
I bought a ticket. I found a parking spot nearby, no mean feat in downtown Brooklyn. I got there early; the room was already filling up. One might think that events from 50 years ago might be long forgotten, but clearly others were equally interested in revisiting this time and place. There was a palpable energy in the room. The space wasn’t very large, I think the capacity was 200. Every seat was taken, with some folks standing along the perimeter. The audience was very diverse: young, old and in between; white, black, and brown; men and women. I didn’t know a soul.
Before going to the session, I did a little research to remind myself what the issues were that surrounded the strike. I read some New York Times accounts and looked at a summary of the book written by Mr. Isaacs.
The strike was spurred by a decentralization experiment in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district. In 1967 the New York City Board of Education, with funding from the Ford Foundation, authorized the creation of three experimental school districts; one in Harlem, one on the Lower East Side and one in Brooklyn (Ocean Hill-Brownsville). The idea was to give decision-making power (in hiring, firing, budgeting, curriculum approval, etc.) to the local community, rather than the central bureaucracy. The hope was that, as a result, the staff in the district would begin to look more like the community around it and that parents would be more invested in their children’s education if they had a say in it. Each of the demonstration districts was poor and student achievement was abysmal.
What happened next is a complicated story and depends on which account of events you read. I can’t do justice to all of the details in this space (whole books have been written about it!). The agreed upon facts are these: A new superintendent, Rody McCoy, who was African-American, was brought into the newly created district, Ocean Hill-Brownsville. A locally elected school board was seated. Changes to curriculum and pedagogical approach were instituted. After a year in charge, McCoy believed that the effort to implement change was being stymied by some administrators and teachers. As a result, during the summer of 1968 a letter was sent to 19 staff members advising them that they were terminated, and they should report to the central Board of Education at 110 Livingston Street in Brooklyn. All 19 were white, many were Jewish (this becomes relevant as events unfold).
The teachers’ union interpreted this personnel action as a threat to their authority and a breach of the contract that they had with the New York City central Board of Education. According to their agreement, termination could only occur after due process, and this action had been taken without the necessary administrative steps. The union, led by its president Al Shanker, protested and called for a strike.
All of this was occurring in the context of heightened racial tension in the country as a whole. Though the civil rights movement had resulted in new laws, poverty, discrimination, police brutality and the perception that the Vietnam War was exacting more pain from African-Americans were still troubling realities. During the summer of 1967, called the ‘long, hot summer’ for a reason, there were multiple riots in urban areas (159 of them). Detroit and Newark experienced some of the worst violence, resulting in 43 and 26 dead in each city respectively. Hundreds of others were injured, and swaths of city blocks were burned. Mixed into this violence was a call for African-Americans to forcefully claim their rights, rather than taking the path of nonviolence charted by Martin Luther King, Jr.
The decentralization of schools in New York City was seen as part of a response to the call for Black Power. The conflict over the termination (which became a subject of dispute because some said it was a reassignment, not a firing) of the teachers/administrators was taking place against this backdrop. It became impossible to disentangle the contractual issues from the racial and power politics of the time. Though I was a child, I was aware of the tension. I was aware of the strain on my father. He supported the union’s position.
I think the most common interpretation of events would suggest that the union ‘won’ and that the decentralization experiment failed. Hearing the panelists, a different picture emerged. Their interpretation emphasized that the 19 teachers/administrators were racists and weren’t actually fired but were to be reassigned; and that children were being harmed in the union’s quest for power. They blamed Al Shanker for stoking racial tensions (alleging that he fueled charges of Black Anti-Semitism) and for letting the strike stretch to 36 days (the longest in American history). They highlighted the successes of the experiment in improved self-esteem among the students and empowerment of parents and community.
While I have no vested interest in Shanker’s legacy, my father did walk that picket line. I was troubled by the allegations because it could implicate my father, a man I admired (and still admire) for his moral compass. I listened to their presentations and wondered what my father would have thought. If only he was still alive, so I could ask him. I would have to do more research to see if I could come to my own conclusions.
Next week: More on the panel discussion and the legacy of Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
When I was in graduate school I lived on 80thand Columbus Avenue in Manhattan. It was 1980. It was my first exposure to gentrification. I hadn’t heard the term before, but it was taking place before my eyes as the block transformed brownstone by brownstone. Drug addicts, homeless and working class people were displaced by wealthier folks. Mom and Pop stores were shuttered and boutiques and trendy restaurants moved in. I wondered where the displaced people went, but I can’t say I was sad about the changes. Slowly but surely the neighborhood felt safer, I could walk comfortably on more blocks. Though the ice cream from the new Haagen Dazs shop may have been expensive, it sure was delicious.
Some lamented the changes, either because of the injustice to those of lesser means or because of the loss of authenticity (everything new, shiny and expensive was phony) or both. I certainly understood the former. The gap between the haves and the havenots was growing steadily, it was and is unfair. But, longing for the days when New York City was gritty and dirty, was bizarre to me. I didn’t enjoy being afraid. I was unsettled by the strung-out junkies hanging out on the stoops of those brownstones. That era, the 70s and 80s, when the city nearly went bankrupt, and the lack of support showed in crumbling buildings and overflowing garbage, is not romantic to me. (The website Gothamist ran a series of side-by-side photos of Central Park, showing the condition of the park back in the day. Take a look.)
More recently I had reason to think about the changes in the last decades in New York City when Leah and I did the Five Boro Bike Tour (which I wrote about here). We cycled through Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Those two neighborhoods were off limits in the 70s and 80s, I wouldn’t have considered visiting either area, much less ride a bicycle through them. We rode past art galleries and craft beer breweries. Much like the gentrification of the Upper West Side, these areas in Brooklyn were now home to a wealthier professional class.
I thought about how change happens in neighborhoods and how complicated it all is, and whether the changes were, on balance, positive. I did a bit of research, including reading a book, The World in Brooklyn: Gentrification, Immigration and Ethnic Politics in a Global City (2012), edited by Judith DeSena and Timothy Shortell. The book is comprised of 16 scholarly essays, including one entitled, Revising Canarsie. (Note: I believe that the title was meant to be Revisiting Canarsie, not revising, because the premise of the piece was to take a look at the neighborhood and compare it to an earlier examination by Jonathan Rieder, entitled Canarsie: Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism(1985), a book I also read and found very insightful.)
The book, The World in Brooklyn, in general, makes the case that gentrification is a bad thing for the poor, immigrant communities. It paints a picture of an invading force that disempowers the current residents. While I believe there is truth in that picture, I think it oversimplifies things. The books presents the ‘gentry’ as one, monolithic thing – as if it is a homogenous group of rich, white people. The book doesn’t take into account that when demographics are changing, it is a two-way street. There can be hostility and an unwillingness to work with newcomers that make true integration across economic classes (not just racial differences) impossible to achieve.
I may be particularly sensitive to this issue of integrating across economic classes because of an experience I had when we moved into our suburban neighborhood, which was a new development (new, developing neighborhood). As may be the case in many suburban neighborhoods, there was a range of economic circumstances. There were those who were barely able to make ends meet to live there, and there were those for whom it was very comfortable, and, of course, families in between. Though Gary and I were in the more comfortable range, we thought of ourselves as more modest people since we had grown up in middle class families. Leah, our daughter became friends with a girl down the block and they often played at the friend’s house. We became friendly with the parents and made numerous overtures to invite them over. We were politely rebuffed. Over time, and as a result of a number of comments that were made, I came to believe that the mom made certain assumptions about us. Since Gary was (and is) a doctor, we were Jewish, we were from downstate originally, the mom, in particular, was not comfortable socializing with us. Maybe I was wrong, perhaps she just didn’t like us, but I think there was something else at work. As Gary and I became more comfortable economically, I became more aware of how that can create awkwardness, even when trying to be sensitive. It is something that is difficult to talk about. We never did get beyond neighborly friendliness and eventually they moved. The experience, and others like it, made me more aware of economic factors that can create social barriers.
My experience growing up in Canarsie offers another perspective on neighborhood relationships in the midst of change. Canarsie’s story of change is not one of gentrification, it would appear to be just the opposite. I have written before about my experience in 1972 with the boycott of schools because of the plan to bus black students from East New York into predominantly white Canarsie schools (here). There was some white flight in response, but the neighborhood remained fairly stable for a number of years (my parents left in 1989 when they retired from teaching). In 1990 Canarsie was less than 20% black; in 2000 it was 60% black (and I use ‘black’ because many of the new residents were immigrants from the Caribbean who may or may not have identified as African-American). By 2010 the neighborhood was over 80% black. Though the racial composition changed, the fact was that the economic status remained stable. The new residents weren’t poor and they weren’t uneducated.
The Caribbean immigrants who made Canarsie their home were looking for the same things that Jews and Italians were looking for years before. According to a New York Times article:
‘A house to the Caribbean man is something very important,” Samuel E. Palmer was saying. ”He has to have a house, as opposed to an apartment. Whatever happens, the house comes first, so you can have a family and your friends can meet there. So, when I came here, the desire also was to achieve this house, this houseness.”
Canarsie had what many Caribbean immigrants wanted: single-family homes with backyards for barbecuing and growing roses or tomatoes, decent schools, affordable prices, quiet streets, proximity to family. They were loyal to Brooklyn; they had no interest in Queens or Long Island. As Mr. Palmer put it, if you move, you have to build all over again: friends, neighbors, all that.
Canarsie is teeming with new and newly revitalized civic associations these days, many of them headed by newcomers like Mr. Brazela and Mr. Duncan, lobbying and agitating for improved street lighting, road repairs, better drainage.”
THE CENSUS — A Region of Enclaves: Canarsie, Brooklyn; ‘For Sale’ Signs Greet Newcomers – NYT, June 18, 2001
The essay on Canarsie in the book that I cited above, supported this anecdotal account with research-based findings. It is sad that it wasn’t possible for the community to truly integrate. The exodus of white families accelerated in 1991 when there were three bias incidents (against black families/businesses), including the fire-bombing of a real estate agency that was court ordered to show homes in Canarsie to blacks and Hispanic buyers. The neighborhood became homogenous again – now it is over 90% black.
In reading and thinking about the issues raised by changing neighborhoods, I think there are some commonalities. Problems seem to start with assumptions made based on stereotypes or ignorance or both. And, there aren’t mechanisms to get beyond those assumptions. We have no language to talk to each other about these issues. One of the essays in the World in Brooklyn analogizes different segments of a community living together to ‘parallel playing,’ like toddlers who might play with a set of blocks at the same time, building their own structures, but not interacting. This seems like an apt description. There is some learning about each other as groups coexist, but not true integration. Of course, there are exceptions, some individuals have successfully broken down barriers, but it doesn’t seem to translate to whole communities. The question is, how do we integrate across race, economic status, religion? What have we learned from our past experiences that can help us? How can we do better?