Justice, Justice: School Politics and the Eclipse of Liberalism (History of Schools and Schooling, V. 40)

reviewed by William Ayers & Richard Ayers — July 18, 2007

coverTitle: Justice, Justice: School Politics and the Eclipse of Liberalism (History of Schools and Schooling, V. 40)
Author(s): Daniel H. Perlstein
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 0820467871 , Pages: 218, Year: 2004
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 Teaching For Change  


Justice, Justice, the title of Daniel Perlstein’s searing and illuminating history of a decisive moment in the modern history of American education, is taken from the Book of Deuteronomy:  “Justice, justice shall thou pursue.” It’s a fitting refrain here, and it’s a useful compass to traverse the tangled terrain through which Perlstein guides his readers. Justice, and again — when things get messy and muddy — justice.


In a style both spare and elegant, Perlstein exposes the contradictions that animated and found their full expression in the 1968 New York City teachers’ strike and, indeed, that echo with force and heat in every significant school struggle today. His great accomplishment here is pinpointing the pivotal event in which contradictory visions of social justice and change, democracy, progress, and the American dream — articulated by teacher unionists and Black community activists — met in dramatic and bitter confrontation. The site was the New York City public schools, the struggle was over who had the power to reorganize and lead, the outcome forever altered the terms of subsequent debate and struggle.


Perlstein’s capacity to evoke a scene with both depth and detail, to focus on the local, is matched by his ability to hold in view the larger concentric circles of context — economic condition, for example, historical flow, cultural surround — in which people necessarily make sense and take action. So we see in these pages Albert Shanker and Milton Galamison, Bayard Rustin and Annie Stein, Rhody McCoy and Liz Fusco and Herman Ferguson as three-dimensional characters in action; and we simultaneously feel the press of the Black Freedom Movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the rise of Black Power, the war in Vietnam, the drive to unionize teachers, de-industrialization and the explosive growth of poor communities of color in American cities matched by the easy availability of suburban housing for whites, the assertion of ethnic identity among Jewish teachers and the retreat from a civil rights ideal, Israel’s six-day war, and more. Perlstein notes that “the social conditions that restrict our actions do not dictate them” (p. 2), and that real choices were being made by real people acting within the conditions and the swirl of history as they found them. The result is an account that is fair and evenhanded, profoundly human and fully accessible.


It was a year of transformation, a watershed, and a flashpoint of revolutionary crisis. There were monumental, cataclysmic struggles exploding all over the globe, and the New York educational crisis ranks as one of the most important. It was here, in the Black community initiative for control of the schools, and in the teachers’ organized opposition to this development, that the fundamental templates for future action were forged.


The conflict broke out after the New York Board of Education authorized the election of experimental neighborhood school boards in Harlem and Ocean Hill-Brownsville (Brooklyn) in the spring of 1967 as a way to promote school equity. While the United Federation of Teachers at first supported community boards, they were doubtful after militant reformers won elections in August. When the local board in Ocean Hill-Brownsville sought to reassign some 13 teachers and six administrators who were deemed ineffective, the UFT, which had not opposed dozens of transfers in the past, called a strike that became one of the most divisive conflicts in labor and civil rights history, pitting traditional allies against each other.


The teachers’ union leadership evoked images of the “blackboard jungle” and the dangerous Black student, emphasizing that their safety depended on their ability to discipline students.  The community activists pointed out the dismal state of the schools and the high failure and dropout rate of African American students. Those who opposed community control had to maintain not only that things might get worse, but that the status quo was mostly acceptable. This was a stance the Black community could not abide — white teachers seemed to be defending business as usual when that business meant the failure and the crushing of Black youth. The strong response of the union against community control combined with assertions of the pathological nature of the Black community, solidified a belief among community activists that schools were institutions of domination and colonial control rather than hope and access.


Another dimension of the confrontation was charges of anti-Semitism on one side and white supremacist thinking on the other. Perlstein reports several instances of extreme rhetoric from each side – Albert Shanker saying that “If community control becomes a fact, they will paint swastikas on your schools”; Herman Ferguson reading a poem about a “Jew-boy” on the radio – noting that while these were not in any way representative, each was willing to seize on such comments to insist that the others were either anti-Semitic or virulent white racists.


Organized teachers, especially the UFT and its leader Albert Shanker, emerged as the clear winners, gaining a measure of political power and clout that had been unimaginable just a few years earlier. And yet, as Perlstein argues, their victory, “coming at the expense of the movement for racial justice, discouraged interracial coalitions for better education, subverted the notion that schools could help construct an equitable society, and exacerbated feelings of demoralization in teacher’s daily school work” ( p. 154). Liberal whites had concluded that Black advancement had gone far enough, that anything more would be at their expense. Teacher unionists won a battle then, and simultaneously lost another: they narrowed the sense of what teaching is and could be, and they impoverished the sense of what teachers might become.  More than settling for a blue-collar metaphor for what constitutes the work of teaching, they irrevocably stamped professionalism itself as standing against parents and opposed to the possibility of a shared commitment or mutual community of interest. Teachers as laborers or teachers as professionals — each now stood off by itself and carried the bitter stench of racism.


The losses suffered by the Black Freedom Movement were even more profound and lasting, for not only did it lose the immediate battle for meaningful community control, but, according to Perlstein, “the flowering of racial pride and consciousness never translated into an effective movement for racial justice” (p. 154).  All the roiling energy of the Black Freedom Movement for civil and human rights, for equality and membership, for unequivocal recognition of the full humanity of Black people, coalesced around the school struggle. Everything was in play from questions about what role school should play in society to what should be taught and how, and who should have the power to decide such things. Teacher unionists insisted on greater power to discipline students, while teachers aligned with the community argued that “schools were fundamentally oppressive to youth, organized not for learning but for social control” (p. 74). Writing in an underground newspaper at the time, a 14-year-old high school student compared schools to prisons: “we were required by state law to be there, but when we were there we had no rights” (p. 75).  And Herman Ferguson, an assistant principal and a major voice for community control argued for a “black survival curriculum” of “self-determination, self-control, and self-defense [against] the whole phenomenon of white supremacy spread and fostered and supported through the educational system” (p. 134).


Worse, white supremacy had not only endured but strengthened, for the concept of race blindness was transformed at this moment and in this struggle “from a means for opposing racial inequality into a means of justifying it” (p. 10).  New York’s white teacher unionists played a critical role in that transformation, which is at the heart of Albert Shanker’s legacy – a legacy that was recently acted upon by the Supreme Court invoking the new color-blind standard in their decision forbidding the racial balancing of schools.


The “self-described socialists of the UFT gradually slid from the notion that superficial racial divisions masked more fundamental ones of class to the notion that inequality would wither without any intervention from activists” (p. 25). The union opposed measures to integrate schools, and promoted instead programs to eliminate the “cultural deficits” of ghetto youngsters. The assumption was that the schools were fundamentally fine, and that the problems reside in the kids, an assumption community advocates rejected in toto.


Today when we talk about school reform, plan for change, strategize about closing the achievement gap, consider decentralization as a tactic, pursue alternative routes to teacher certification in order to attract smart and energetic young people, bring in staff development gurus to help us overcome the failings we take to reside inside students themselves, or face a teachers’ strike — when these and a hundred other possibilities confront us, we would do well to consult Justice, Justice.  This is a text for all times.





Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 18, 2007
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14557, Date Accessed: 7/18/2007 8:06:54 PM


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