Justice, Justice: School Politics and the Eclipse of Liberalism

By Podair, Jerald | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Justice, Justice: School Politics and the Eclipse of Liberalism


Podair, Jerald, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Daniel H. Perlstein, Justice, Justice: School Politics and the Eclipse of Liberalism. New York: Peter Lang, 2004, pp. xii + 218, notes, index, $29.95 paper.

Almost four decades after the event, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville schools crisis continues to cast its shadow over New York City race relations. On May 9, 1968, a local board established as part of an experiment in community control of schools in the predominantly African-American Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, sent termination letters to nineteen white, mostly Jewish educators. All were members of the union representing New York's public school teachers, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). The UFT attempted to obtain their reinstatement through three citywide teachers' strikes in the fall of 1968. Rife with charges of racism, union busting, and antiSemitism, they spilled out from the educational system into the bloodstream of the city itself, creating a poisonous atmosphere that continues to divide black and white New Yorkers today.

The tragedy of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville dispute was compounded by the fact that it occurred in the nation's quintessential liberal city. New York was unmatched in its level of government social welfare expenditures. It was a strong labor city, a pioneer in public sector unionism. It was a culturally pluralist city, whose mayor at the time of the crisis, John Lindsay, was among the most racially progressive in the nation. But as Daniel H. Perlstein demonstrates in Justice, Justice: School Politics and the Eclipse of Liberalism, Ocean Hill-Brownsville was the scene of New York's liberal crackup.

The city's defining ideology collapsed under the strain of conflicting views of race's role in the city's sociopolitics. White supporters of the ousted UFT teachers argued for a class-centered liberalism that excluded considerations of race. African-Americans and their white leftist allies embraced an ideology consciously built around constructions of racial identity. Both versions, as Perlstein shows, were inherently flawed. The race-blindness, to which UFT strikers professed to aspire in the New York of the late 1960s, was a disingenuous fantasy. But their opponents in the black community and on the left justified the teacher firings in ways that came dangerously close to racial essentialism, another ideological dead end.

Ultimately, what Perlstein describes as liberalism's eclipse in New York resulted from its inability to address the needs of two groups with conflicting agendas. Many of the striking UFT teachers had used the Board of Examiners system governing hiring and advancement in the city schools, with its array of tests and ranked job eligibility lists, as a socioeconomic escalator. As they moved up the ranks, the teachers acquired a "professional" status that distanced them from the children, parents, and communities they purported to serve.

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