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Liberalism's Civil War, Forty Years After Brownsville

1968 was a terrible year for America. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and the civil rights movement broke into what were virtually separate warring camps, demontsrating how one person sometimes unifies people who are basically at odds. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated by a Palestinian nationalist whose political indentity everyone conspired to ignore. The McCarthy campaign petered out because Gene felt that somehow he had, through the bitterness of the contest between him and Bobby, allowed the killing to take place. The Tet offensive, though militarily a disaster for the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, psychologically exhausted the American body politic and its military.

And, not to be undervalued, a local school board in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, a largely black Brooklyn neighborhood, tore asunder whatever was left of the liberal alliance on race and education in the country. Usually civilized people came to blows and, it is hard to deny, former allies came to hate each other, a hatred that still smolders.

Richard Kahlenberg was a student of mine at Harvard, and he was drawn to this issue as a thesis topic. He has now moved on to issues of education with broader perameters, and he has produced published four intellectually elegant books three of which deal with the subject (Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy, All Together Now: Creating Middle Class Schools Through Public School Choice, The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action, and Broken Contract: A Memoir of Harvard Law School). So Rick finds Ocean Hill-Brownsville still lurking in the atmosphere. 

This spring is the fortieth anniversary of the great racial confrontation. Republican mayor John V. Lindsay sided with the black ultras, and nearly destroyed the school system. McGeorge Bundy--like Lindsay, a high WASP, but no longer running the Vietnam war as national security adviser--joined him. Al Shanker, a teachers' trade unionist committed to real liberalism, was demonized and ridiculed by Woody Allen, the great social thinker. Two black agitators entered quickly into history, Rhody McCoy and Sonny Carson, and not so quickly out.

Kahlenberg has written an article for this issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education discussing the really unresolved conflicts of what was started in that desolate Brooklyn neighborhood forty years ago.

Like me, Kahlenberg is a supporter of Barack Obama for president. He believes that Obama understands the issues that have torn people apart for four decades, and he also believes that Obama should state his conclusions.