Jews, Blacks and Unions

Posted on November 1, 2012 by

A member of the American Federation of Teachers [AFT] since 1989 when I taught my first class for the L.A. Trade Tech Labor Center, I grab every chance I can to talk about the New York local of that union and its former leader Albert Shanker.

I was in high school in Brooklyn when Shanker lead a series of strikes to force the New York Board of Education to back-off plans to allow neighborhood school districts to hire and fire teachers.

Community control over public schools was a huge issue in the late ’60s in the city and culminated in all-out war between the largely Jewish UFT [United Federation of Teachers] and community leaders in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, an African-American neighborhood about five miles east of where I went to school.

The strike had tragic consequences for black-Jewish relations, the city and its labor movement.

A considerable majority of New York’s public school teachers in the ‘60s had been raised in union families; their parents and relatives part of the city’s blue-collar workforce of the ’40s and ’50s in garment, manufacturing, food processing, retail and transportation.  When African-American parents and activists – tired of inferior educational conditions – sought to change union rules over matters like teacher transfer rights and seniority, UFT members stood firm.  They knew the meaning and power of union solidarity.

Many Jewish teachers were also offended that black parents didn’t trust them to teach their kids.  After all, many of them – including Shanker – had been deeply involved in the civil rights struggle and were politically liberal or even radical.

I was only vaguely aware at the time of what these strikes were about but my parents likely supported the union.  In fact, my mother worked as a typist for the School Board’s Brooklyn headquarters on Court Street and – I believe – was a member of AFSME District 37, led by one of the city’s most powerful union leaders, Victor Gotbaum.

My parents favored desegregation as long as their son wasn’t forced to leave the neighborhood.  Bensonhurst Junior High School served second and third generation white working-class Eastern European Jews, Italian and Irish Catholics.  I walked across the street to 7th grade in 1963 while – for the first time – black kids came in by bus.  There was some racial tension and minor violence in the classrooms, the hallways, the playground and on nearby streets (I got into a few fights; nothing serious) but this version of “integration” suited many “white ethnics,” especially Jewish families.

Five years later, Ocean Hill-Brownsville parents and community leaders, frustrated by under-resourced schools in their neighborhood and spurred to action by a growing “black power” ethic, tried to replace white teachers.  Shanker and the UFT would have none of it, insisting that teacher placement be based on civil service test performance and not on a subjective evaluation by locally elected boards and administrators.

Was this a case of the union protecting “white privilege” against a legitimate effort by African-Americans to take responsibility for their kids’ education?  Or was the UFT the principled actor, defending the job rights of its members, many of whom entered the profession dedicated to equal opportunity for racial minorities?

In The Strike that Changed New York, written ten years ago, Jerald Podair takes on these complicated and confusing issues, filling in what I couldn’t understand or appreciate back then.

I would leave Brooklyn and its troubles in 1971 for Vermont, the whitest of all states.  I wasn’t escaping racial tension, I told myself, but the overall insanity of urban America.  I was, I suppose, exercising my white privilege.

Twenty years after Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Bensonhurst made big news.  Deteriorating racial conditions exploded when a group of Italian teenagers attacked – and one shot and killed – black 16-year old Yusuf Hawkins who came into the neighborhood to look at a used car.  That triggered months of racially-charged marches followed by a second-degree murder conviction of the shooter.

Press characterizations of Bensonhurst in the late-’80s (I was already well-settled in L.A.) as working-class Italian-American and conservative showed, among other things, the out-migration of the neighborhood’s Jews.  Many of the Jewish kids of my generations had deserted Bay Parkway and 86th Street for Brooklyn Heights, the “city,” Long Island, Westchester and Rockland Counties, rural New England and California.

Podair, in fact, argues that before Ocean Hill-Brownville, New York’s Jews self-identified as a minority but that the episode sealed our assimilation into the white majority and enabled the city’s turn to the political right.

In some ways, certainly, Albert Shanker fit that mold.  He left UFT to become head of the nation-wide American Federation of Teachers in 1974, where he continued to advocate militant tactics to organize new members and defend contracts.  But he was also what we came to call a “cold war liberal”  for his support of the war in Vietnam.  In the ’80s his battle scars had begun tilting him further to the right and he was suspected of being a closet republican.  He died in 1997.

If I felt smug about escaping the ethnic parochialism of the “outer boroughs” and then for leaving behind racially-sterile Vermont, I hadn’t yet been confronted with the terrifying spectacle of L.A.’s urban uprising.

Holding my infant son outside our apartment in the Pico-Robertson section of West 1992, I had a wide angle view of at least three arson fires, including the nearby La Cienega shopping center.

Acquittal in Simi Valley of the white cops who brutalized Rodney King set off this uprising, 28 years after the Watts riots.  Driving around two days later, I saw combat-ready civil and military authorities holding rifles and automatic weapons, giving these streets the look of a third-world nation after a coup.  In my early forties, I was becoming more aware of the forces shaping racial life in Southern California.

How could this happen in a “post-racial city” with a black mayor?  Tom Bradley was, in fact, a towering figure who politically realigned Los Angeles by coalescing the region’s African Americans, union members and Jews.  But when he lost the governor’s race to underdog Republican George Deukmejian in 1982, the wind left Bradley’s sales.

Unable to reform LAPD, which patrolled black neighborhoods like an “invading army” (remember the battering ram and the choke-hold?), Bradley – who had risen to police lieutenant in the department before entering politics – lost control of the situation and the city.

The L.A. labor movement argued persuasively that the decline of the region’s unionized industrial base contributed to the frustration and desperation in that community.  Income and opportunities among African Americans had risen substantially from the ’40s – when tens of thousands of black families came here from Louisiana and Texas to work in the war industries – through the ’70s when the auto, steel and tire plants left town for good.  The enormous job losses in the ’80s displaced and forced into poverty thousands of working-class blacks.

For an eye-opening account of the economic devastation suffered by Southern California’s black families, read Josh Sides’s L.A. City Limits, African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present published in 2003. (Employment, housing and other forms of discrimination against Latinos, Asian-Americans and poor white migrants are also, of course, part of L.A.’s story.)

California-bound American and immigrant Jews faced prejudice too but had greater access to the region’s assets.  It’s an exaggeration, I think, to assert that Jews and blacks have had a shared experience in the U.S.  When my grandparents “moved up” by leaving the ghetto in New York’s lower east side for the southern Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge and Borough Park, no one was waiting for them with baseball bats.  When Jewish men enlisted and were drafted into the service in World War II, they weren’t forced into segregated units.

Jews have enjoyed expansive opportunities for financial, professional and intellectual development in the U.S. But Jewish identity obviously does pass on a particular sensitivity around issues of oppression and hate.  After all, the European Holocaust occurred less than a lifetime ago.

I’ve been especially vulnerable, for example, to Black Nationalist rhetoric which insinuates Jewish culpability in racial inequality and injustice.  As a progressive Jewish labor-activist rooted in the American working-class, it takes quite a bit to trigger my resentment.  I recall being quite offended, though, by Khalid Muhammad of the Nation of Islam in a speech at Howard University in 1994.  It wasn’t his anti-Semitic remarks which wounded me but the snickering reaction among some in the audience, which I presumed – rightly or wrongly – included some in the African American academic elite at this prestigious black college. Muhammad would eventually forfeit his status as “the Nation’s” number two man behind Louis Farrakhan and would die at 53 in 2001.

Obviously, I have some tender spots around my ethnic identity.

I can locate some of my own history and trajectory on race in the recently published political memoir by progressive journalist Joan Walsh.  What’s the Matter with White People traces her working-class roots as an ethnic minority Irish-American.  As her family becomes more assimilated, she recalls, they increasingly identify with the growing conservative Catholic majorities of the ’60s and beyond.

Walsh is compassionate toward those in her family who drifted to the right and offers a very smart critique of how changing times affected them.  Except for her dad – the central character of the narrative who maintains a fierce commitment to progressive principles and civil rights – other relatives including her mom become more and more susceptible to the subtle and divisive racially-charged demagoguery of  Nixon and Reagan.

Income inequality is worse now than it was in the ’70s and ’80s but racial division are narrowing with each generation.  Working and middle class Americans  - told over and over that there’s not enough to go around – may be harder to fool this time.

Comments (6)


  1. Bill Voegeli says:

    The “decline of the [Southern California] region’s unionized industrial base contributed to the frustration and desperation in [the black] community. Income and opportunities among African Americans had risen substantially from the ’40s – when tens of thousands of black families came here from Louisiana and Texas to work in the war industries – through the ’70s when the auto, steel and rubber plants left town for good.” So, why was there a riot in Watts in 1965, after things had gotten better and better, and before they started getting worse?

  2. kerry candaele says:

    I’d love to hear Mr. Voegeli’s answer to his own question, or should we just be rereading our Charles Murray?

  3. kerry candaele says:

    My own further reading suggestion is Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action was White, and Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crises.

  4. Judith Samuel says:

    It was also obvious to me that the Riots took place because of the people’s extreme frustration. According to one authoritative resource, “Throughout the crisis, public officials advanced the argument that the riot was the work outside agitators; however, an official investigation, prompted by Governor Pat Brown, found that the riot was a result of the Watts community’s longstanding grievances and growing discontentment with high unemployment rates, substandard housing, and inadequate schools. Despite the reported findings of the gubernatorial commission, following the riot, city leaders and state officials failed to implement measures to improve the social and economic conditions of African Americans living in the Watts neighborhood.

  5. Thomas J. Mackell, Jr. says:

    I saw Vic Gotbaum at an event for the African Museum in NYC last year and had a nice conversation with him. He was the face and voice of public sector workers in NY during his day. His son is the head of the PBGC in Washington overseeing the demise of the pension plan in the private sector, a job that no one should covet.

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