The Strikes That Changed New York: Race, Culture, and Ocean Hill-Brownsville, 1960-1975

Article excerpt

On the morning of May 9, 1968, a Jewish junior high school science teacher named Fred Nauman received a letter that would change New York City. The letter Nauman opened that day was signed by the chairman of a local school board in Brooklyn's predominantly black Ocean Hill-Brownsville section, which was part of an experiment in community control of the area's public schools. It told Nauman, a chapter chairman of the city's ninety-percent white, and majority Jewish union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), that he had been fired.(2)

The issue of whether this black local school board could fire this Jewish, unionized teacher on its own initiative, which was joined with this letter, would effect a fundamental shift in politics, culture, and race relations in New York City. It would result in a series of three citywide teachers strikes launched by the UFT in the fall of 1968 aimed at obtaining the reinstatement of Nauman and me of his union colleagues, who were also fired by the Ocean Hill-Brownsville local school board that day. Lasting almost two months in all, and affecting almost one million public schoolchildren, the strikes would be the most bitter in the city's moden history, rife with charges of racism, union-busting, and anti-Semitism.

These strikes pitted the city's white middle class, which backed the UFT, against New York's black poor, and government, business, media, and intellectual elites, who rallied in support of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville local school board and the community control idea. They pitted the city's traditional liberals and emerging neo-conservatives against acolytes of the "New Politics" and the New Left. Most importantly, however, they pitted blacks against whites, and specifically, blacks against Jews. For both blacks and Jews, Ocean Hill-Brownsville was a crucial moment of self-revelation. It exposed the hidden fissures beneath the surface of what many had considered a "model" relationship. It forced each to confront unrealistic constructions of "the other." And, it created an atmosphere in which continued Jewish ambivalence about "white" identity became impossible. Under pressure from the city's black community at Ocean Hill-Brownsville, New York's Jews, primarily those residing outside Manhattan in what were known as the "outer boroughs," came to grips with their whiteness and began to align with white Italian, Irish, and Eastern European Catholics, who only recently had been their rivals.

This shift, in which almost a century of ethno cultural animosity between Jews and Catholics was subordinated to the imperatives of race, would have far-reaching consequences for political, economic, and cultural life in New York in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. It sundered the informal political alliance between Jews, blacks, and white Protestants in New York that had defined the city's political culture since the end of World War n, by breaking off a crucial element - outer-borough Jews - and realigning them with white Catholics. This new alliance reconfigured New York's political landscape rightward. Only once in the city's seven mayoral elections between 1973 and 11997 did voters elect the most liberal candidate available to them. New York's new governing coalition of outer-borough Jews and white Catholics provided an electoral mandate for the service reductions and budget cuts that marked the city's fiscal crisis of the mid- 1970s, cuts that disproportionately impacted the city's black community.

Perhaps most significantly, by removing the mediating influence of the city's Jewish population, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy helped substitute race for religion, ethnicity, and class as the primary dividing line in New York politics and social relations. Before Ocean Hill-Brownsville, pluralist social scientists such as Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan themselves could argue in their classic Beyond the Melting Pot for the existence of not one, but many "New Yorks," defined by a series of overlapping ethnic, religious, racial, and economic identities. …