Power, Protest, and the Public Schools: Jewish and African American Struggles in New York City

Power, Protest, and the Public Schools: Jewish and African American Struggles in New York City

Power, Protest, and the Public Schools: Jewish and African American Struggles in New York City

Power, Protest, and the Public Schools: Jewish and African American Struggles in New York City

Synopsis

Accounts of Jewish immigrants usually describe the role of education in helping youngsters earn a higher social position than their parents. Melissa F. Weiner argues that New York City schools did not serve as pathways to mobility for Jewish or African American students. Instead, at different points in the city's history, politicians and administrators erected similar racial barriers to social advancement by marginalizing and denying resources that other students enjoyed. Power, Protest, and the Public Schools explores how activists, particularly parents and children, responded to inequality; the short-term effects of their involvement; and the long-term benefits that would spearhead future activism. Weiner concludes by considering how today's Hispanic and Arab children face similar inequalities within public schools.

Excerpt

“They are our children, not yours!” a Jewish mother shouted in Yiddish at members of New York City’s (NYC) Board of Education who refused to improve the overcrowded, and vocationally oriented schools in their neighborhoods even though thousands of Jews had been working toward this effort for years. Forty years later, in 1957, Harlem mothers, known as the Harlem 9, fed up with the segregated, crumbling, overcrowded, and vocationally oriented schools in their neighborhoods, stood in the mayor’s chambers demanding to know, “How long are we expected to sit back patiently and sacrifice the future of our children?”

In 1937, Jewish educators and Zionist student groups attempting to institutionalize Hebrew courses in the public schools argued, “Jewish children are filled with a just pride when they see Hebrew on a par today with the outstanding languages of mankind.” Over twenty years later, in 1959, African American parents demanded that schools institutionalize courses in African American history, emphasizing their contributions to the nation’s narrative, to instill “character, pride, and dignity” in their children.

Popular accounts of Jewish immigrants climbing the social ladder usually describe the key role of public schools in helping these youngsters earn a higher social position than their parents. But city schools did not grant Jewish students special opportunities. In fact, politicians and school administrators marginalized Jewish and African American students similarly at different points in NYC’s history. They denied both groups important educational resources that appeared in schools with mostly native-born white students. The Board of Education implemented vocational and subpar curricula and repeatedly refused to address its constituents’ very real concerns about the quality of their children’s education. Mainstream white society perceived Jews in the early twentieth century, like African Americans during the post-migration 1950s and 1960s, as a racially inferior group less deserving of the public resources granted to other citizens.

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