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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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.