Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Albert Shanker’s Legacy: Nothing to Celebrate

From the November 2007 issue of the Boston Union Teacher, the monthly newsletter of the boston teachers union.You can download back issues of the newsletter from www.btu.org if you want to see how it looks in print with pictures, etc.

Albert Shanker’s Legacy: Nothing to Celebrate
by John Allocca (Boston Teachers Union)

In the October issue of the Boston Union Teacher, Paul Tenney writes a glowing review of Richard Kahlenberg’s new biography on long-time American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker (Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Race and Democracy). Having read some of Brother Tenney’s previous reviews and articles in this newspaper, I must admit that until this piece I have generally admired his insightful writing, including his recent review of UMass-Boston Labor History Professor James Green’s Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing that Divided Gilded-Age America. Unfortunately, as a veteran teacher, student of history, BTU Building Rep, former full-time union organizer and long-time social justice and peace activist, I must strongly take issue with any analysis of AFT history and Shanker’s role that does not take into account any of the negative aspects of that legacy.
Before going into some of the details of why today’s BTU and AFT activists should question the legacy of Shanker’s leadership of our union, I would like to pose the same question that I often ask my own students when we’re studying a topic that isn’t immediately and apparently relevant to their life experience: who cares? My answer to that question is basically that in order for us to move forward as a union that not only fights for our own members’ basic right to be treated with respect and dignity, but that also proactively leads the fight for quality education for all young people and struggles for social justice alongside the communities that we serve, we need to have a clear understanding of both the negative and positive aspects of our union’s historical development.
Much is made in Kahlenberg’s book and in Tenney’s review about Shanker’s role as president of the United Federation of Teachers (the U.F.T. is the New York City local of the A.F.T., by far the largest and most influential grouping within our parent union) in leading the 1968 strike against community control of the schools in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville experimental district in Brooklyn. Tenney states that, “The district was staffed by self-styled community activists who then fired teachers solely on the basis of their race and then hired people on the same basis.” However, the facts of the situation are nowhere near as simple as suggested by this and other statements from Tenney’s review of Tough Liberal. Furthermore, it is crucial to understand the larger historical context of the period in question. While it may be true that some of the community activists and members of the elected school board acted in an unnecessarily provocative and unconstructive manner during that time period, the fact is that many of them were acting out of genuine and well-grounded frustration over the years of neglect shown by the education bureaucracy and other powerful institutions in New York specifically and in the United States in general toward the overwhelmingly African American and Latin@ working class youth in the Ocean Hill and Brownsville neighborhoods specifically and more generally in New York as a whole. As Jonathan Kaufman points out in Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America, at a time when over half the city’s students were Black or Hispanic, only 8 percent of New York City’s teachers were Black. In addition, the man who was chosen by the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school board to lead the newly created, community-controlled district was Rhody McCoy, not just some “self-styled community activist”, but a man who had eighteen years of teaching and administrative experience in the New York City Public Schools, many of them as teacher and principal in so-called “600” schools for “…teenagers considered too violent for regular classes” (Kaufman 132).
The very reason that the experimental, community-controlled school district was established in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn had to do with the extremely low quality of education in these overwhelmingly African American and Latino neighborhoods in the face of an overwhelmingly white education bureaucracy in the central offices of the New York City school system. At a time when communities of color throughout the United States and even leaders like Martin Luther King were not only demanding basic civil rights such as equal access to voting rights, public schools and a seat on the bus and at the lunch counter, but also a deeper level of equality, empowerment and a genuine voice in the education of their children, the establishment of community control of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district was an attempt by people of color to gain a real seat at the table and a chance to be directly involved in the education of their children.
While some serious errors were made by some of those involved at all levels of this process, the reality is that although there was an attempt to bring in more teachers and administrators of color to schools that sorely needed positive role models of color for its students, no wholesale firing of teachers based on the color of their skin ever took place. Rather, what did occur was that some teachers and administrators who refused to abide by the community’s wishes for a school curriculum that was genuinely inclusive of the cultures, histories and aspirations of its students and their families were transferred to other districts within the massive New York City school system. Instead of trying to work with the communities of color in Ocean Hill-Brownsville in a more collaborative manner that could meet the needs of both parents and students on the one hand and teachers on the other, U.F.T. President Shanker called a strike against the unfolding process of community control and manipulated fears of anti-Semitism and anti-white attitudes on the part of the mostly white, mostly Jewish union members and on the part of white New Yorkers in general, who were largely unwilling to accept the legitimate demands by communities of color for self-determination after hundreds of years of being used and abused by racist institutions—including the public school systems—in the United States.
Although there may have been some generally ignorant and/or anti-Semitic sentiments expressed by some activists involved in this struggle, the fact remains that 70% of the teachers hired by the newly established Ocean Hill-Brownsville community school board were white and half of them were Jewish; these were white folks who, unlike Shanker, understood and embraced what the community was demanding for its school children and who were not afraid to be led by people of color. And once again, while there were some really problematic and damaging statements by some of the people involved in the community control process, they did not actually come from district superintendent McCoy and were never official in nature. On the other hand, when an anonymous anti-Semitic flyer appeared in teachers’ school mailboxes, instead of trying to defuse the situation or investigating the real source of the leaflet, Shanker ordered that 500,000 copies of the handout be copied and distributed throughout the city, thus further exacerbating already tense Black-Jewish relations in an environment that desperately cried out for responsible leadership. Jonathan Kaufman notes that not only were the union handouts inaccurate and quoted statements out of context, none of the anti-Semitic leaflets in question represented official Ocean Hill-Brownsville policy and in fact, both local union chapter chairman Fred Nauman and Sandra Feldman (Shanker’s personal representative at Ocean Hill-Brownsville and future A.F.T. president) felt that reprinting the leaflets was a mistake. Although in the end the union was “victorious” and the community control experiment was defeated, Shanker and the union’s actions and statements helped set back both Black-Jewish relations in New York City and any real possibility of union-community collaboration for decades, despite Tenney’s assertion to the contrary. Unfortunately, a similar pattern was repeated in Boston and other cities where instead of recognizing and embracing demands for quality education by communities of color and attempting to establish a mutually beneficial, collaborative relationship with those communities that could have led to mutually satisfactory solutions, A.F.T. locals until the last few years often ignored and sometimes actively opposed those just demands and developed a reputation among many parent and community activists of being only concerned with the immediate self-interests of its members.
While a teachers’ union or any union needs to be primarily concerned with the well-being of its members, in the public sector—especially in public education—it is essential that we do so in a way that views the communities that we serve as allies and understands who our real enemies are. This is particularly important given the long unfortunate history of European settlers displacing, enslaving and invading peoples of color in the Americas and the current reality of being a mostly white teaching force that is serving mostly communities of color in the large urban areas. For neither during the 1960s when Albert Shanker was rising to power within the A.F.T. and the larger labor movement nor in the present time is it the forces of genuine parent and community empowerment who are to blame for declining government support for public education and other vital public services. Rather, whether they are “liberals” such as Paul Grogan of the Boston Foundation or conservatives such as Charles Baker of Harvard Pilgrim and the Republican Party, the real enemies of both teachers’ unions and children in the public schools are those powerful interests in society which have declared the concept of the public good to be some quaint remnant of the past and see the privatization of public services—and the concomitant lining of the pockets of those who benefit directly from such a process—to be the “solution” to the problems of the day.
And if you think I’m merely going off on a strange tangent here, it is important to note that Albert Shanker was also an ardent supporter of President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy in Central America and an ardent opponent of multicultural education. I mention these points because while it was and is convenient for Shanker, Kahlenberg, Tenney and others to bash the so-called “liberal elite” (i.e., see comments on Woody Allen, et al in Tenney’s piece in the October issue of the B.U.T.) for its anti-union views, the last time I checked, it was Reagan and Shanker’s allies in El Salvador who were massacring nuns, priests and trade unionists in El Salvador and not the “Stalinist” left (Tenney’s term for anyone on the left who criticizes Shanker or any other “liberals” who support the interventionist, militarist foreign policies of Reagan and his ilk). The last time I checked it was Shanker’s ally Ronald Reagan—and not some Stalinist, Black nationalist, Salvadoran nun or Hollywood filmmaker—who busted the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Union in 1981 and set in motion a deeper process of union busting and gutting of legal protections for workers trying to organize unions from which the labor movement is still trying to recover even today. Shanker’s ardent support for illegal military intervention in foreign lands (i.e., Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua) in the name of “democracy” should really give us pause today when we consider how the current administration in Washington has squandered hundreds of billions of tax dollars that could be devoted to education and other human needs to fund another war under false pretexts, also in the name of democracy. For some of the same forces and individuals that carried out illegal intervention against the peoples of Central America in the 1980s—ardently supported by Shanker—are the ones who planned the illegal invasion of Iraq. I ask you my fellow BTU sisters and brothers: is that the legacy that we want to uphold?
Shanker and the A.F.T.’s consistent upholding of a Eurocentric, rigidly back-to-basics model of education and opposition to any serious effort at multicultural education is consistent with his opposition to the efforts by educational, parent and community activists in Ocean Hill-Brownsville to promote a sense of pride among Black and Latin@ youth about the real accomplishments of their ancestors and the inherent worth and dignity of their own communities. For despite what some critics might say, multicultural education is really about nothing more subversive than the recognition that not all that is worthy in the United States and the world has been created by straight white men of means and that there may be more to a child’s education than the rote memorization of the names and biographical trivia of the presidents and a narrow focus on Western civilization. The direction taken under Shanker’s guidance by the A.F.T.’s American Educator magazine and largely maintained even today is completely out of step with any efforts by educators over the last thirty years to promote a more inclusive vision that does not privilege one culture over another. We obviously need to teach young people certain basic skills and content that include aspects of the European-dominated “classics” in order for them to have a well-rounded education, but we do neither them nor us any favors by not recognizing the need to criticize what is wrong with the society we live in and by not focusing on the real achievements and vital role of cultures that do not coincide neatly with the European paradigm that used to be the only one recognized in public and private education in this country.
I’d like to conclude by noting that I have not read Kahlenberg’s biography of Shanker beyond what I can gather from Paul Tenney’s review of that book, but what I read in that review strongly motivated me to attempt a rebuttal to what are some of the distortions and omissions that seem to be omnipresent in the canonization of Albert Shanker. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in a more balanced appraisal of Shanker’s legacy check out other more critical analyses, such as Jonathan Kaufman’s book (previously cited here), Jerold E. Podair’s The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites and The Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis, Paul Buhle’s short piece entitled “Albert Shanker: No Flowers” and the Eyes On the Prize documentary video episode that deals with the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis (the episode entitled “Power! (1966-68)”).
My final point here is that while I understand fully that the main responsibility of any union is to fight for the protection and advancement of its own members, unions can and have played a valuable role in the larger fight for equality and social justice in this country and around the world. We have to ask ourselves the question that was constantly asked during the early days of the labor and civil rights movements in this country: which side are you on? We can continue a legacy of opposing efforts at community control of our schools and supporting chauvinistic, militaristic foreign policy or we can see the communities that we serve as allies and work in solidarity with educators, unionists and social justice activists throughout the world. The decision is ours.

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