The Magazine

Mugged by Reality

Albert Shanker and the fall of American liberalism.

Sep 10, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 48 • By FRED SIEGEL
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Tough Liberal

Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy

by Richard Kahlenberg

Columbia, 552 pp., $29.95

The life of Al Shanker embodied the 1960s transformation of American liberalism from a creed with broad middle- and working-class support to a doctrine lodged primarily in the precincts of the poor and the professional upper middle classes.

In 1967 Shanker, the pioneer public sector unionist who built his New York City teachers into the largest local in the AFL-CIO, stood at the heart of the labor-liberal-civil rights coalition that was, at long last, bringing an end to racial segregation. Inspired by the civil disobedience of the Freedom Riders, Shanker served jail time for illegally taking his members out on strike. Shanker had marched with Martin Luther King in Birmingham and fought hard to integrate Gotham's increasingly African-American school system.

A year later Shanker was, wrote Midge Decter, the recipient of "the worst press in living memory." Demonized as a "goon," "racist," and "Neanderthal," who was "but an accent away from George Wallace" by radicalized writers Murray Kempton and Jimmy Breslin, Shanker was reviled by many of his former allies as the incarnation of middle-class bigotry. It was a left-liberal auto da fe that reached its verbal climax in Sleeper when Woody Allen described Shanker as the man who had destroyed the world with an atomic bomb.

What intervened, explains Richard Kahlenberg in his judicious and engaging Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy, was the left-liberal swing from Shanker's integrationism toward Black Power symbolized by the bitter struggle, in Brooklyn's Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district, to give militant Afrocentrists "community control" over the local schools.

Shanker, a tall, nearsighted, and awkward Bronx Jewish boy born in 1928, had nearly been lynched by neighborhood nasties as a prank. Precociously intellectual, Shanker started reading Partisan Review at 15. He began to come into his own as a Boy Scout and member of his high school debate team. At the University of Illinois, just after World War II, he joined the Congress of Racial Equality and the Young People's Socialist league, and took part in sit-ins to protest segregation.

His interest in philosophy brought him to Columbia's graduate school to study at the home of his intellectual hero, John Dewey. But he lacked the Sitzfleisch to write a dissertation and so took a job as a teacher, where he discovered that, without a union, he and his fellow instructors were at the mercy of the principal's arbitrary authority. A skilled speaker and debater, Shanker, fired up by Sidney Hook's ideas about democracy, set out on a mission to bring workplace democracy to the New York City schools.

Shanker was drawn to the militantly antisegregationist and anti-Communist American Federation of Teachers, whose founding motto was "Education for Democracy." Shanker shared the action-oriented (and initially anti-authoritarian) impulses of the emerging New Left. In 1960, Kahlenberg explains, the older generation of teachers argued that the still-weak union had to grow before it could strike in violation of state law. Shanker, a veteran of the sit-ins, insisted, SDS-like, that "you have to act in order to grow."

When, in 1962, a victorious strike shifted the balance of power from principals to teachers, Shanker exulted--as would the McGovernites a decade later--in what he saw as a triumph over the corrupt old patronage system and the principals/political bosses who ran it. The pol-like principals had largely ignored the breakdown of order in what at times were "blackboard jungles." But Shanker, committed to the substance of education, insisted the teachers use their victory to take the lead in restraining unruly students so as to make it possible for others to learn.

Shanker was in tune with the new spirit of aggressive liberalism Mayor John Lindsay brought to City Hall. During the 1965 mayoral election, Shanker, his power greatly enhanced by the 1962 contract, was one of the few union leaders to support Lindsay. When Lindsay angered the city's outer-borough white ethnics, who felt under siege from rising crime rates, by proposing a Civilian Review Board to crack down on police brutality against minorities, Shanker was the only union leader who backed the mayor, despite the protests of many of his own members. Similarly, Shanker initially supported Lindsay's Ford Foundation-funded plans for "community control" of schools in black neighborhoods.

"As teachers," Shanker explained, "who have only recently struggled for a voice, we support others in this struggle. The right to democratic participation need not and should not be justified on grounds of educational efficiency. It has value in itself."

Shanker was about to be blindsided by the toxic mix of resentment, racial guilt, and revolutionary romanticism that engulfed both the streets and the chattering classes. In the wake of the 1967 riots across urban America, redemptive violence was touted by black militants and left-liberals as the balm for racial injustice. By the lights of the Black Power movement, integration into a desiccated white society had become the primary danger, so that street toughs--youngsters outside the norms of bourgeois life--had become the true revolutionaries, the hope of Black America.

The well-to-do Lindsay, uncomfortable with the concerns of the middle class, was drawn to this shift: Speaking of "young men . . . living their own special kind of street life," Lindsay said, "they are not. . . . to be feared. There is no warmer, sounder or firmer ally to have. . . . They are not a politically captive group. . . . The regular politicians . . . are just beginning to discover the power of this force."

Imagine, then, Shanker's shock when he discovered that community control meant that white Jewish teachers unacceptable to black-power street thugs such as Sonny Carson (later totemized in a Hollywood movie) could not only be dismissed from their jobs without cause, but also threatened and beaten with the acquiescence of John Lindsay.

Shanker's world, and that of much of the liberal Jewish middle- and lower-middle class, had been turned upside down. How could it be that, for Lindsay and his black-power allies, self-imposed segregation and unruly students could be the solution, not the problem? How, asked Shanker, could the union he had fought so hard to create, and its integrationism, have been so quickly redefined as "the real enemy"?

Shanker, notes Kahlenberg, fought back with precedent and logic. "There have been," said Shanker, "black schools throughout the country for more than a century," which is "precisely the opposite of the integration that people fought for in the South." Community control as it was being practiced was, he said, the "spiritual descendant of segregation" because it moved people in a "more provincial . . . more bigoted . . . more tribal" direction.

But this was all to little effect. Other battles in the civil war broke out at the City University of New York and at Columbia, in hospitals and in cooperative housing projects. In each case, the newly radicalized attacked liberally inclined institutions as "the real enemy."

Part of what made the Ocean Hill fight so extraordinarily charged was that, in most cities, similar conflicts were met largely by accelerated white flight. But in New York, Shanker, furious at what he saw as Lindsay's attempt to break the union, and dismayed by the liberal justifications for violence, stood firm. Thanks to Shanker's intellectual and political strength, Black Power and its radical chic groupies were met by a principled social democratic defense of 1950s liberalism.

After 40 years of liberal decline, it's difficult to imagine the centrality and intensity of the liberal-on-more-liberal clashes of a time when there seemed to be no political alternatives. The fracture over Vietnam, the rise of Third Worldism, and the New Left's anti-Israeli sentiment unleashed by the Six-Day war produced a witches' cauldron of hate and hostility.

Each of these conflicts bled into Ocean Hill Brownsville, so that the Afrocentric leaders of the community control movement were invested, by the left, with the antibourgeois moral authority of the Viet Cong. Jason Epstein, an editor at the New York Review of Books, captured some sense of the madness when he wrote that "the city is now faced with a classic revolutionary situation." So much seemed to be at stake that Epstein went on to argue that the "the alternatives left to the white majority" were "capitulation or genocide."

It turned out to be neither. The union emerged from the Ocean Hill conflict strengthened, but narrowed, in defense of its own interests. The New York schools, then the best big-city educational system in the nation, never recovered; nor did liberalism, as many embittered white ethnics became Reagan Democrats.

For his part Shanker, notes Kahlenberg, stuck to his beliefs. He worked with Ronald Reagan to bring down communism in Eastern Europe and Central America by helping to push the president into seeing the importance of trade unions for establishing free societies. But he remained a vigorous opponent of free-market economic and social policies.

Kahlenberg, himself a thoughtful social democrat, best known for arguing on behalf of income-based affirmative action, wants to revive the "tough liberalism" once represented by Shanker. But this is unlikely. Social democracy, with its admirable solidarity-based instincts, was a product of the relatively closed economies that defined advanced societies between the end of the first period of globalization and the onset of the second. But as power has shifted, to some degree, from national governments to world markets, social democracy has languished, even in its European homeland. It's doubtful that we will see Albert Shanker's like again.

Fred Siegel, professor of history at Cooper Union, is the author, most recently, of Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life.