- Power, Protest and the Public Schools: Jewish and African American Struggles in New York City
Melissa F. Weiner’s Power, Protest, and the Public Schools: Jewish and African American Struggles in New York City is an important study that contributes to an expansive body of scholarship examining the distinct differences and shared trajectory of these two minority groups in twentieth-century America. Her work decenters the infamous Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict that has become the standard narrative of [End Page 232] Black-Jewish relations in New York City by foregrounding the organized protest of parents from both groups who tirelessly fought against a racist public school system that marginalized their children during two different periods in the city’s history. She juxtaposes the racialization of Jews in the early twentieth century with the racist treatment of African Americans during the 1950s and 1960s, maintaining that mainstream white society denied both groups full citizenship and public resources, particularly in the area of education. However, Weiner concludes that their experiences diverged as Jews attained a status of whiteneness after World War II while African Americans continued to confront institutional racism.
Contrary to the popular notion of American public schools as the great equalizer for disadvantaged groups, Weiner convincingly shows how the Board of Education in New York represented a microcosm of a larger white power structure outside the Deep South that historically denied non-Anglo Saxon Protestant groups equal opportunities needed to successfully compete in mainstream society. She critiques the effectiveness of theoretical binaries and contends that comparing the experiences of Jews and Blacks, “rather than analyzing them separately, allows for a more nuanced understanding of the way the schools shape racial meanings, patrol the boundaries of whiteness, and undergird a system of oppression” (2). In effect, Weiner challenges the conventional Jewish success model that indiscriminately extols the accomplishments of these “intellectually gifted immigrants” while not only ignoring their early plight as second-class citizens, but also disregarding the privileges of whiteness that aided their progress following World War II (11).
Weiner adopts a comparative case/narrative approach that outlines the protests and strategies of Jewish and African American groups engaged in the struggle for equity in New York’s public school system. The first chapter recounts the social injustices committed against Jews living in the Pale in Russia and the racial terrorism waged on African Americans in the United States South before documenting how each group became a “racialized other” after migrating to the city. In the following chapter she cogently draws parallels between Jewish mothers waging a fierce battle against the Gary Plan in 1917 and their African American counterparts, also known as the Harlem Nine, protesting on behalf of their children in the 1950s. Mothers’ Anti-Gary Leagues, alongside other Jewish groups, organized boycotts, distributed Yiddish flyers, and voted in unprecedented numbers to challenge a plan designed to lock working-class students into inferior and overcrowded schools that primarily steered them toward a vocational track. Likewise, African American mothers organized the Parents’ Committee for Better Education (PCBE) to fight for integration, [End Page 233] zoning policy changes, smaller class sizes, better curriculum, and safer schools. Their efforts illuminated the inequalities plaguing black school children in the North. In each case, “parents relied on existing and newly created parent, religious, and neighborhood organizations and networks to challenge the school system” (67). And the Board of Education often responded to both groups with a token gesture while upholding its stand.
Chapters 3 and 5 highlight Weiner’s critical race method, which centers on the cultural histories and grassroots organizing of Jewish and African American groups that sought ways to assimilate their children through a “politics of semblance” while simultaneously fighting for an equal representation of their respective cultures in the school curriculum. Both groups championed an alternative model to the hegemonic textbooks privileging Anglo-European history, and their efforts to implement a more inclusive national discourse in classrooms presaged the multiculturalism movement (131). Her concluding two chapters demystify...