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The Real McCoy

The idea behind the decentralization of the schools, and the issue which precipitated the strikes and continues to generate great hostility within the city, is what has rather wistfully come to be known as institutional change: that by changing the administrative conditions within which teaching takes place, the teaching itself will change, presumably for the better. The argument for school decentralization in New York was that the schools should be separated from their centralized and aloof bureaucracy and brought closer to the reality of the neighborhoods in which they operated. Thus their administrators would become accountable to the people in these neighborhoods, rather than to a distant headquarters. What gave this idea force was that the school bureaucracy had indeed become an aloof and stupefying institution. Even its own Superintendents, together with several previous Boards of Education and a majority of the present Board of Education, had urged that it be decentralized.

The corollary to this proposition is what, in fact, precipitated the strikes, for to weaken the grip of the central bureaucracy presupposes that the individual districts and their community governing boards will become correspondingly stronger. Since a majority of the children who now attend New York City public schools are black or Puerto Rican, their parents are likely to predominate on a number of the local boards. The blacks and Puerto Ricans would thus become, in effect, the employers of many of the teachers and principals who have traditionally depended upon mechanisms within the central bureaucracy for their advancement and upon contracts between their city-wide union and the central Board of Education for their tenure and other rights.

Inevitably a great many teachers and administrators must have concluded that under a decentralized system, in which the staff would be directly accountable to local governing boards, they would sooner or later become what Mr. Mayer calls “surplus.” At best they would find themselves employed by the very Negro and Puerto Rican leaders whom many teachers and principals had typically come to fear and patronize. This fear was undoubtedly aggravated by the fact that in New York City the average non-white child at the age of twelve was two years behind his average white counterpart and, as Mr. Mayer says, “it is psychologically very difficult for parents,” in such circumstances, “not to blame the schools.” Whether it is a question of psychology or justice, the fact is that great numbers of ghetto parents had begun to blame the schools and the teachers for the failure of their children, and leaders had risen among them who were no longer willing to wait upon the yearly promises of the central bureaucracy to do something about it.

The attack upon decentralization by groups representing the apprehensive teachers had begun well before the events with which Mr. Mayer’s book is concerned. Mr. Mayer says nothing, for example, about the concentrated, expensive, and successful efforts of the UFT to defeat decentralization when it was discussed in the legislature last spring, nor does he mention the militant factions within the union which urged these tactics, and which Shanker, in order to secure his own power, had to accommodate, well before the Bundy decentralization plan appeared in the fall of 1967.5 He fails, too, to mention the fact that the Jewish Teachers Association, which claims 26,000 members, attacked the Bundy proposals months before the troubles began in Ocean Hill, and that the New York Board of Rabbis (but not the Brooklyn Board) had done the same, while the Board of Examiners, which supervises promotions within the system, issued a warning that decentralization was “terrifying” in its implications for “white teachers.”

These are admittedly delicate matters and require the most scrupulous analysis. Had Mr. Mayer chosen to face them, however, he would then have been able to consider the teachers’ strike in a far more complex and enlightening perspective than he has, for it is merely distracting to go into such detail as Mr. Mayer does about what “Al” Shanker said to Rose Shapiro, a former acting President of the Central Board, and what she said to Harold Israelson, a labor mediator, or who may have said what to whom at an agitated dinner meeting at Armando’s between seven and twelve o’clock on October 13, when the city and its school system were in the midst of an unprecedented and bewildering crisis.

The urgent matter before the city is no longer simply the school crisis—much less the conversations that may have taken place in Rose Shapiro’s apartment. The urgent crisis is the outrageous and heartbreaking and potentially dangerous hostility between the city’s blacks and its Jews that has followed in the wake of the strikes and has by now had the effect of distorting not only the original strike issues but the concept of school decentralization itself.

One result of this is that it will be exceedingly difficult for the State Legislature, which must soon consider proposals for permanent school decentralization, to think sensibly about the issues and to act upon them without fear of antagonizing the black and Jewish constituencies within the city. The problem for analysis is how this hostility broke loose and what can be done about it, if anything can be done at all. Instead of analyzing the crisis, Mr. Mayer’s book exacerbates it; all the more so because The New York Times Sunday Magazine had printed a substantial part of it, with its numerous errors uncorrected, a few weeks before the book itself appeared.

The result has been that the Times has given Mr. Mayer a platform from which to create the widespread impression, on the eve of the legislature’s deliberations, that the Ocean Hill crisis had been the result of no more than the treachery and foolishness of a handful of black troublemakers and their dupes among a largely Protestant group of establishment nincompoops. As Mr. Mayer says, New York City “is two thirds non-Spanish Catholic and Jewish. The political decision [by Lindsay and his appointees to the Board of Education] to permit the horror of the third teachers’ strike was taken by a group which did not include a single representative of the two majority elements and which acted solely in the interests of the ideological bias and self-esteem of its members.”

Now this statement is not only condescending and, in the present atmosphere, inflammatory, but it ignores the central role of the UFT in “permitting,” if not causing, the third strike—to say nothing of the first two. Furthermore, Mr. Mayer’s statement is untrue. Of the group of Lindsay appointees to whom Mr. Mayer presumably refers (i.e., those who would not accept. Mr. Straley’s advice and who strongly support decentralization), two are black, two are Puerto Rican, but only Mr. Straley himself is a white Protestant. The other two are John Doar, a “non-Spanish Catholic” and William Haddad, a Jew. Another of Lindsay’s appointments to the Board was Salim Lewis, an investment banker and a former president of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. Had Lewis not been forced to resign from the Board for reasons of health, he would probably have become its President and would probably have supported the group to which Mr. Mayer objects. When Lewis resigned, Lindsay replaced him with Doar, who did become President. Furthermore, this group established itself as a majority caucus with the help of John Lotz, who had been appointed to the Board by Lindsay’s predecessor, but who was reappointed by Lindsay, and who is also a “non-Spanish Catholic,” while Lindsay’s go-between with this group of Board members was usually Lew Feldstein, also a Jew. Recently, when Lloyd Garrison, a WASP, resigned from the Board, Lindsay replaced him with Norman Redlich, a Jew who favors decentralization. That Mr. Mayer, who has described himself as an expert reporter, should have stumbled over such verifiable facts is perhaps the result of his haste to make events conform to his own “ideological bias.” But for the Times, which has usually been scrupulous in matters of ethnic and group conflict, it is quite another matter to publicize such invidious inaccuracies as are to be found within Mr. Mayer’s arraignment of the Ocean Hill blacks and their supporters in City Hall.

Mr. Mayer evidently subscribes to the idea, which has been expounded recently in Commentary, a magazine sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, that “establishment” gentiles have begun to express their residual anti-Semitism by encouraging militant Negroes to attack Jewish institutions as well as Jews themselves. Thus Mr. Mayer’s book implies a larger conspiracy than the one which he claims to have uncovered within the Ocean Hill Board. In suggesting that the gentile administration in City Hall has ignored the interests of the city’s Jews in preference to those of the Negroes and Puerto Ricans, he seems to be arguing that Lindsay, perhaps unconsciously, has confirmed the Commentary hypothesis.

Now this is a narrow and considerably obsessed interpretation based on an impertinent and cursory judgment of Mr. Lindsay’s private motives and a mistaken account of his public acts. Though the roots of the current hostility between the city’s Jews and its blacks may be as ancient as the sources of anti-Semitism and anti-Negroism themselves, there is a more apparent source of the city’s miseries than either the ancient quarrel or the presumed malignity of Mr. Lindsay’s private motives. The attack on New York City’s educational bureaucracy is, in many ways, inseparable from what appears to be a nearly world-wide revulsion from those highly centralized institutions and their bureaucracies which have come to characterize the advanced cultures. This tendency may be found not only in the decentralist bent of our own youth movements and those which have arisen in the other capitals of the West, including not only Paris and London but also Prague; but something similar seems to have been involved in China’s antibureaucratic cultural revolution and in the separatist movements within Great Britain and France as well as the one in Canada.

In any case, it is hardly news that our bourgeois civilization is considerably agitated, nor is the agitation limited to the bourgeois countries of the West. If the demand for decentralization and for the transfer of power from the bureaucracies to what Alexander Dubcek, but also the leaders of the Roman Catholic minority in Ulster, call the “people” has filtered down from the foundations to New York City’s ghettos—or perhaps the other way round—then New York and its highly centralized and archaic school system have no reason to feel unique.

Yet by a grotesque accident of history the drama of decentralization has begun to play itself out in New York as a conflict between Jews and blacks for the simple (and pathetic) reason that one of New York’s most malignant and vulnerable bureaucracies happens to be its school system, which is controlled not by Stalinist bureaucrats or Cromwellian Ulstermen or complacent Gaullist deputies, but by Jewish liberals, whose antagonists turn out to be, of all people, the very ghetto residents of whom these liberals had typically been proud to feel them themselves the special benefactors.

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    The UFT disingenuously had insisted that it supports decentralization and to prove this, it points to its support of the Marchi bill in the legislature last spring. The Marchi bill, however, was a weak and ambiguous substitute for the much stronger Regents bill which the UFT fought. Much of the confusion that took place last fall can be traced to the inadequacies of the Marchi bill.

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