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Power, Protest, and the Public Schools: Jewish and African American Struggles in New York City

reviewed by Winston C. Thompson - November 11, 2010

coverTitle: Power, Protest, and the Public Schools: Jewish and African American Struggles in New York City
Author(s): Melissa F. Weiner
Publisher: Rutgers University Press, Piscataway
ISBN: 0813547725, Pages: 272, Year: 2010
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When I began reading Melissa F. Weiner’s Power Protest and the Public Schools: Jewish and African American Struggles in New York City, I was unsure of exactly what type of project the book represented. After having spent ample time with the text, elements of my initial uncertainty still linger, but I now take that ambiguity to be a clear and distinct strength of this ambitious project.

Weiner’s book, based largely on her doctoral research, reads like a historical narrative, carefully constructed to highlight recurring motifs, motivations, and movements in protests of educational initiatives and inactivity in New York City. Weiner conveys these tales of protest in thematic rather than strictly chronological order, often linking moments of similarity between plans and protests separated by decades. As Weiner’s project focuses on two groups, the titular Jewish and African American populations in the city, a reader might expect to find a generous degree of theoretical work on the concepts of racial, ethnic, and cultural identity at play in the political moments that the text highlights. While these are certainly plentiful, the historical moments that Weiner selects stand out as the real gems of the text. Though the reader receives abundant historical context to solidify the reality and invigorate the activity of the chosen moments, Weiner’s telling is gracefully restrained, as her prose resists a singular interpretation of the events, instead granting her reader the conceptual space to recognize patterns of protest and power.  

Power Protest and the Public Schools opens with a foundational first chapter that sets the stage for the work to follow. Weiner paints a historical picture of the social realities experienced by Jewish and African Americans in New York City. From this bedrock chapter, she transitions skillfully into a discussion of the Gary Plan and the Harlem 9. Though these two moments of protest (Jewish students and parents in response to the Gary Plan and nine Harlem mothers spearheading a call for reform) were separated by more than forty years, both reflect a single story about adequacy and equality of educational resources for citizens. The Jewish community’s demand for Hebrew language curriculum is likewise considered alongside African Americans’ insistence upon truthful depictions of their identity and actions in school-endorsed literature and history textbooks. In considering resources, citizenship, and curricular reform, Weiner traces a history of non-synchronized, yet comparable struggles experienced by the two groups, culminating in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict, which saw both groups squaring off against each other over their futures in public schools.

As mentioned above, Weiner intersperses the rich historical segments of her work with race-based theoretical commentary on the sociological issues at play in these educational protests. These sections gave me slight pause, as I was never completely sure why Weiner uses race as an essential element of analysis. Allow me to be clear, Weiner does provide careful reason for her analyses; I simply mean to say that I still had questions of interpretation after reviewing them.

The issues Weiner couches in racial/cultural identity might be best engaged via constructs larger than those categories. Of course, the protests that she discusses can be labeled along racial/cultural lines, but the analysis that she provides is largely one of “insider” versus “outsider” power. Weiner tracks the way in which the Jewish community becomes white and in so doing realizes educational gains that the African American community does not. While it is clear to me that this movement can be understood through racial identity, I am unsure why Weiner prefers this treatment to one of insider statuses and perceived legitimacy. I do not take this possibility for generality to be a weakness; indeed it is one of the strengths of the book.

While following the historical exposition and theoretical analysis that Weiner provides, I also questioned whether the protests are as similar as they appeared at first read. For example, while the calls for African American History and Hebrew language instruction both seem to be centered on the priority of inclusive curricula, they are distinct in some (possibly) meaningful ways. African Americans claimed that the pernicious effect of racist portrayals of Africans and their descendants in textbooks constituted an educational injustice by actively communicating falsehoods to children of all races and cultural groups in public schools. The Jewish community found the lack of Hebrew language instruction to be a social injustice enacted through educational means. This distinction, once made, opens new avenues of analysis for the city’s arguments and public responses to the protests led by these two groups.

Weiner should be commended for noting that these two groups are anything but uniform. She speaks briefly about the intra-group dynamics of the Jewish (largely conflicts between German and Russian) and African American (with tensions between those with ties to the North, the South, and the West Indies) communities. More space devoted to these types of complexities would have been appreciated.

Minor quibbles aside, Weiner adeptly guides her reader though a world that aches with the strain of communities embroiled in the messy business of struggle for the futures of their children. With such a full articulation of these protests, the reader is easily led to recognize the continued realities of these issues in contemporary educational clashes; Weiner’s final chapter even puts a face on these present day, yearning groups. This recognition is where the text is most strong. Jewish or African American, Muslim or Hispanic, the underlying lessons are the same. Weiner compares two particular groups in one city over time, but the insights we can glean from this presentation, the forms that appear as we bear witness to a repeated story, transcend those conceptual and geographical spaces. What I initially encountered as possible ambiguity when opening this book, gave way to an understanding of its certain universality when I closed it. Weiner’s text may be an important contribution to discussions of race, ethnicity, and culture in educational protests, but its salience should not stop there. Scholars and activists with an interest in educational protest, broadly construed, will want to follow Weiner as she guides a trip through history. The pathways that she highlights will likely remain useful for many journeys to come.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 11, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16230, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 3:43:23 PM

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About the Author
  • Winston Thompson
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    WINSTON C. THOMPSON, MA, EdM, is a doctoral candidate in the Philosophy and Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University. His academic work centers upon access and retention in Higher Education with a focus on social and political philosophical approaches to these issues as they tie into larger justice concerns.
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