Across the Race Divide: Black Moms, White Moms and an NYC Teachers Strike
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
A citywide teachers strike uncovered previously unexamined fault lines that cut across both race and class during the Age of Aquarius.
By Irma Norman and Eugene S. Robinson
The year was 1968 and I had just moved to Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, with my 6-year-old son and his stepfather, my second husband. We moved into a brownstone rental apartment that — interesting historical note — was owned by the daughter of famed American historian Lewis Mumford and her husband and their two children, who lived downstairs.
The neighborhood itself was in transition. Mostly from an Irish and Italian working-class neighborhood to one populated by hippies, beatniks, academics and journalists — seemingly a fairly typical hodgepodge of New York intelligentsia. Of which we were very much a part: I was a guidance counselor with multiple degrees and my then-husband was a former community organizer-turned-journalist.
But the unrest that had hit America wholesale did not miss New York. Tension over the more traditional and centralized teacher unions’ control of local schools rose, and communities affected by a de facto kind of segregation and lack of self-determination were in disagreement. So a massive school strike was called. Right at the start of the school year, thousands of teachers walked off and stayed off for well over a month.
Talking, planning, hanging out. Lots of us were young mothers so we all had skin in this game. Just some of us had different amounts and kinds of skin.
I was home on leave then, so some of the other mothers in the neighborhood and I decided to help mitigate any disruption students would face. We volunteered at the Board of Education, we tutored students and made sandwiches for the kids while Albert Shanker, head of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), battled it out with the community-controlled school board.
It was a fairly bloody fight. The community was squared off against the union, local rights against the teachers’ rights as workers and the changing face of race in New York where some Brooklyn neighborhoods had gone from African American populations of about 6 percent in the 1940s to well over that by 1970. Which is to say in neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Brownsville, African American populations were more like 77 percent. Add to this, 19 percent Puerto Rican and it’s clear that it was much more than the neighborhood that was in transition. Also, the transition was much more than racial: Blue-collar workers, mostly the Irish and Italians who were moving out of our neighborhood, were being replaced by, well, us … white-collar workers.
So it was a hothouse of concerns, from race to class, all fueled by a very ’60s kind of concern for resisting the “establishment,” whoever the “establishment” happened to be at the moment. We buzzed around and made as much of a difference as we reasonably could. Talking, planning, hanging out. Lots of us were young mothers so we all had skin in this game. Just some of us had different amounts and kinds of skin.
“Which PS [Public School] is Gene in again?” My friend Sally, a white-collar professional asked about my son, while the group had gathered one day. [Total disclosure: the “Gene” in question here is OZY’s editor-at-large Eugene S. Robinson.]
“Oh. He goes to the Montessori over in Park Slope.”
Which is just about the time the needle scratched off the record. You see, in 1968 a private school in the still very tony Park Slope was about as close to being a “sellout” they seemed to feel you could get. Though my son was in a truly integrated school (there were Black kids, White kids, kids from Vietnam, Puerto Rico, India, and it was run by East Indians who taught a rigorous curriculum), the fact that we paid for it and really had nothing but a civic stake in the strike rubbed them the wrong way.
Revved up on hippie politics, words like “bourgeois” were being thrown around and pressure was being put upon us. We were sellouts and were supposed to be with “the people.” All of their kids went to the public schools. And presumably, the integration that they seemed to think they were fighting for was supposed to benefit people like us and how could it benefit us when we weren’t there to benefit from it? Maybe it also felt a little weird that I was, either directly or indirectly, also helping them? I don’t know.
In any case, it got heated. Right up until I put my ideological foot down.
“I am not going to put my kid … my Black son … in a public school so he can be an experiment.”
They just had never seen it that way. And it seemed to be then (and sort of now) that when you’re an educated Black person a lot of times this supersedes your Blackness. Simply, they had just stopped seeing me as Black. “My Black son” had snapped them out of it.
Anyway, the strike ended, New York neighborhoods — and by extension, the New York school system — continued fracturing, and we left Cobble Hill for Crown Heights and then finally Flatbush. By that time my son had been accepted into Stuyvesant High School, one of New York’s three specialized high schools that is currently in the midst of its own kind of struggle given that Black and Latino enrollment there is down in the single digits.
Mayor de Blasio has been talking about trying different things. Like changing the entrance exam to make it harder to game via expensive tutoring classes and so on. There’s also talk about opening it up to the top percentile of kids from junior high schools all over New York. Sans a test. The fact that the school has been majority Asian since Gene went there in the late ’70s also seems to bother some people.
But, you know, it doesn’t bother me. Call me a sellout, but really no one’s kids should be an experiment.