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The Jews and Italians Against Liberalism
What's old is new again
An ill wind blew through the land. Life, suddenly crackling, was not what it once was. The young, they said, did not respect the old, and the nation they knew now did not resemble the nation of their memories, when chaos did not seem to swallow up so much. Crime was up, gas prices were up, and the rage they felt was no longer confined to the living rooms they could barely afford. If they were angry and afraid, they were certain they had a reason to be—society was at a precipice, or would soon be, and violence both real and imagined would be the new language of the decade.
“They feel the pressure, like everything is fading away,” one local explained. “It’s all in danger: the house you always wanted is in danger, the kids are in danger, the neighborhood is in danger. It’s all slipping away.”
All decades contain traces of what came before: trends, theories, longings. Time is never evenly divided or erased, and those without memory inevitably find themselves, at some point in adulthood, echoing the dead. If certain periods feel startling new, they never quite are, and more often than not there is the low-running realization that the events of the present are imitations what was and what, a pundit might hope, was not supposed to be again. For the observant making their way through 2022, the third year of an uneasy and confounding and deeply tragic decade—the pandemic ebbs; the pandemic lives—it can feel that history is the monster in the attic, readying to trod down the stairs. It’s hungry and must be fed.
In 1985, the Barnard sociologist Jonathan Rieder published a book that is little-known today. Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism is not as provincial as it sounds, but the title is about as literal as it gets for academic treatises, given how shorn of theory and allusion it is. Rieder, then a young academic—he still teaches today—made the curious decision to study the far-flung Brooklyn neighborhood of Canarsie in the mid-1970s, living a few miles away and traveling there frequently for interviews and research. Canarsie was, and remains, a home-owning middle-class neighborhood, tucked near Jamaica Bay and the Belt Parkway. Many who live there own automobiles. The rest of the city is accessible by subway, but Canarsie is, like my native Bay Ridge, a last-stop neighborhood. The L trundles from Canarsie-Rockaway Parkway almost two dozen stops before reaching Manhattan.
Anyone under the age of 40 who grew up in Brooklyn thinks of Canarsie as a Black neighborhood, home to a large Afro-Caribbean community. Whites in other parts of the city will conflate, for racial reasons, Canarsie with East New York or Brownsville and warn of crime or gun violence there, but the area is not nearly as poor as its neighbors to the east and north and is, on the whole, much safer. The class character, over more than a half century, has not changed much in Canarsie. It is a working and middle-class place where the suburban lifestyle of a detached house and grass-fed backyard is possible. Longtime homeowners now enjoy substantial equity, with property worth in excess of $700,000.
But few areas of New York knew demographic change as swift as Canarsie. Before it was Black, it was white—entirely white, a distinct mix of Italian and Jewish, many of them who had migrated from other parts of Brooklyn. Rieder arrived in the midst of that demographic upheaval to tell a bigger story about the rest of America. His timing, ultimately, was very good. He produced an imperfect book, but one that well-explained the Reagan revolution of the 1980s and foretold the very challenges that plague the Democratic Party today. A close reader of Canarsie who had found the book before 2016 would not have been shocked by Donald Trump’s rise or how he managed to defeat Hillary Clinton. With the Trump wing of the party on the march again and liberal Democrats enduring backlash from a working-class that is now more multiracial in character than it was 50 and 60 years ago, the warnings of Rieder’s work seem to grow louder by the day.
Canarsie was the locus of white working-class rage, the sort that had powered Richard Nixon’s stunning comeback in 1968 and his demolishing of George McGovern in 1972. Rieder spent an inordinate amount of time interviewing the residents of Canarsie and following the political developments of the neighborhood. He hung out at Jewish delis, Italian bakeries, and political clubhouses, particularly the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club, which exists to this day and was, at the time, perhaps the strongest in New York City. Rieder traces Canarsie through the 70s, from Nixon to Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan’s ascendance to the White House.
What’s striking, with twenty-first century eyes, is how the 2020s echo the 1970s—today, we grapple with paler imitations of what were, genuinely, deep problems of the period. Crime is now a top concern on the minds of voters after coming off a historically peaceful 2010s. Inflation is rapid and real, but what’s discombobulating for many Americans is how it arrived after a period of such little inflation, prices outside of housing and education remaining relatively stagnant, gasoline even falling off in the latter part of the decade. Today’s laments, in liberal quarters, of the Democratic Party’s struggles with the working-class have their roots in the 1960s and 1970s, as do the current battles over identity politics and whatever critical race theory might be.
Two events, with larger implications for the culture, exploded at or near Canarsie in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1968, the newly-unionized public school teachers of New York City went on strike for more than one month. Led by Albert Shanker, a union boss charismatic and consequential enough to be a one-liner in a Woody Allen movie, the United Federation of Teachers staged a walkout that began in the Ocean Hill and Brownsville neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Once overwhelmingly Jewish and socialist in its political bearing, Brownsville had become, by the late 1960s, mostly Black and poor. Many Jews of Brownsville, working-class and poor themselves, had fled to Canarsie, bitter that their old neighborhood, once filled with the sounds of Yiddish and the scent of sour pickles, had transformed beyond recognition. Black residents of Brownsville, feeling neglected by the city, demanded community control of their schools and teachers who resembled the populace: almost all teachers in the local schools were white, many of them Jewish. The schools of New York were heavily segregated and the hope was, in this corner of Brooklyn, the district would hire more nonwhite schoolteachers to be role models for students and adopt a curriculum that was culturally affirming.
John Lindsay, the new mayor of New York City, was more acutely concerned with the plight of the Black working-class than any mayor who had come before him. A liberal of patrician East Side stock, Lindsay hailed from the left flank of the Republican Party, one that would be quickly extinguished in the coming decade. A genuine political star in his early years, Lindsay beat the Democratic machine in 1965, galvanizing a coalition of young, progressive whites and Blacks who believed he could deliver on a promise of generational change. In Congress, Lindsay had voted for the civil rights bills and represented, in every sense, the social vanguard. Tall and handsome, Lindsay graced the covers of national magazines and was considered, almost instantly, a future presidential candidate. Nixon seriously considered him for his ticket. Lindsay’s swashbuckling optimism would soon come back to haunt him; for years, his vow to make New York “Fun City” was mocked as garbage piled up in the streets and muggings increased.
Lindsay’s coalition was unsteady. Blacks supported him, but there weren’t enough of them yet in New York to buoy the popularity of a mayor. Jews, typically more liberal than other white ethnics, liked him enough in the beginning. But the larger white working-class, the greatest political force in New York politics at the time, grew to revile Lindsay, seeing him as the personification of aloof, elite liberalism, a Manhattanite who knew nothing of the struggles at the ends of subway lines. Lindsay’s push for community control of the public schools, a bid to empower neglected minority groups, ran up against the teachers’ union when the local school board sent a telegram to 19 unionized educators indicating that the board “voted to end your employment in the schools of this district.” Eighteen of 19 were white, and mostly Jewish. Shanker believed he had no choice but to call a strike because the teachers had been arbitrarily dismissed.
A firestorm erupted and the strike commenced, pitting otherwise liberal Jews—they were, among whites, unusually supportive of the Civil Rights movement—against Lindsay and many Black leaders, including Stokely Carmichael. The rift was very bitter, the sort that would linger at the heart of American liberalism long after the strike quieted down and the teachers went back to work. Each side, in essence, could lay claim to righteousness, to history. Blacks had faced horrific discrimination and demanded recourse. The teachers, many of them good liberals, had been terminated in violation of their due process rights. Reconciling racial and class divisions—the drive of the labor movement to account for both, to strive for the elusive multiracial front—was the unresolvable challenge of the era.
The Jews of Canarsie were wary. They were sympathetic to the Civil Rights movement but sensitive to the tangible (as well as imagined) anti-Semitism that could rear up in Black, church-going communities. The more radical turn among some civil rights leaders—the movement from the King rhetoric of multiracial coalition-building to the talk of Black Power—alienated the working and middle-class Jews who could find no place for themselves in this new leftism. Both Blacks and Jews held searing memories of apartheid conditions. A large number of New York Blacks had migrated from the Jim Crow South, fleeing racial terror. Racism met them in the city, where facilities could still be segregated and mostly menial work was available to them. Inarguably, even in the North, Blacks were second-class citizens.
Many of the Jews of Brooklyn had family members who perished in the Holocaust or had escaped Europe themselves. Younger Jews were still old enough, had they been born in Europe, to have been sent to the camps. Anti-Semitism was deeply ingrained in American society; working-class Catholics could hate Jews as much as wealthier Protestants, and elite schools had only recently ended anti-Jewish quotas. As Rieder writes, these experiences manifested in several ways. A sizable number of Jews embraced the causes of civil rights and multiculturalism, arguing that no people should be oppressed like they had been. Others, fearful for their position in America, turned to militarism or at least romanticized it. This was the era when the Jewish Defense League, a far-right terrorist organization, first came into being, urging Jews to resort to violence to combat anti-Semitism.
Compared to their Italian neighbors, the Jews had accumulated greater economic and cultural capital, according to Rieder’s analysis. They were less likely to hold blue-collar jobs and more likely to be college-educated. Education and professional success meant a lot to the early generations of Jews who had arrived from Europe. If the first wave were manual laborers, often garment workers, they urged on their sons and daughters to escape these professions and assimilate into middle-class life. Many did. Jews, relative to their population, held a great amount of political power in New York. By midcentury, New York’s House delegation was filled with Jewish lawmakers, most of them Democrats, and the speaker of the Democrat-run State Assembly, by the 1970s, was always a New York City Jew. The Jewish vote was a Democrat vote from Franklin Roosevelt onward, with exceptions made for liberal Republicans like Lindsay. Many Jews of Manhattan and Brooklyn were socialists, and the American Labor Party, for a period, could count on strong Jewish support. The socialist congressman of the Lower East Side, Meyer London, was a Jew.
The Italians of Canarsie, and of New York broadly, were cut from a different cultural cloth. Some had liberal or even anarchist convictions but a sizable number, by World War II, had drifted rightward. Family, patriotism, and patriarchy were incredibly important to Italian immigrant families, as was home ownership. Rieder makes the observation that New York Jews were more comfortable with renting apartments. For Italians, the goal was homeownership and to honor the family, particularly the father. Blue-collar work was acceptable, even preferred. Italians made up the construction trades and filled various local factories that still produced a large amount of America’s goods in the first half of the century. After Roosevelt, Italians drifted toward the Republican Party, but enough were held in the Democratic coalition because they often belonged, like Jews, to labor unions. Some older and very conservative Italians, Rieder observed, still resented FDR for going to war with fascist Italy.
Racism ran through both communities. Part of Rieder’s challenge was sorting through the virulent rhetoric to find genuine grievance. Reading Canarsie at first, it’s easy to dismiss the neighborhood as nothing more than a hotbed of racism, the white working-class backlash of the period amounting to a collective yowl against the progress minorities were making in America. And it was. But it was something else too, something unsettling for the liberals who were sure, as recently as Barry Goldwater’s drubbing in 1964, they were permanently ascendant.
The darkest controversy of the era, far less famous than the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike but much more troubling, was the Canarsie busing protests of 1972. Integrating public schools through forced busing—the sort of thing young Joe Biden opposed—was a well-intentioned if chaotic attempt to end a century of horrific segregation in both urban and suburban neighborhoods. The New York Board of Education decided, rightly, it was time to integrate the overwhelmingly white junior high school in Canarsie. A vocal minority in the neighborhood was livid, staging furious protests against the arrival of the 29 Black and Puerto Rican children from Brownsville. A parents boycott kept more than 9,000 children out of class across the local schools. When the nonwhite children arrived, they were greeted with racist taunts, according to the New York Times. White and Black parents jeered each other beyond the police barricades. “You ain’t, people—you’re animals” and “Go back on the boat to Africa” were among the more vicious taunts hurled by white parents toward Black counter-protestors. In the schools themselves, violent clashes between white and Black students were frequent, with Italians, according to Rieder, taking the lead.
One of the long-running currents in the book, and one of the ugliest, is the lengths some whites in Canarsie went to try to keep their neighborhood white. Associating Blacks with crime and plummeting property values, a small but active group of residents would bully and physically threaten locals into not selling homes to Blacks. They would harass and intimidate Blacks who were able to move in. Homeowners who wanted to move would be told not to put up for-sale signs or list their houses in the newspapers. Informal networks were set up to try to ferry white buyers into Canarsie. For a period, the Jewish community tried to hustle in Soviet Jews from Brighton Beach. Enough residents were fine with Black buyers as long as they could pay—a middle-class contingent of Blacks, hoping to live their own American dream, was beginning to enter into the area—but for the most stubbornly racist of the lot, no Black lawyer or doctor could come into their community. It’s here where Canarsie could have been much stronger. Rieder interviews some Black residents, but not nearly enough, and he never ventures to Brownsville or East New York to hear from the desperately poor. His portrait is meticulous but ultimately incomplete.
One dark irony of the period was the way white residents of Canarsie weaponized the rhetoric of community control against the left. Liberals who spoke fondly of Black power and local governance of the schools found their vision reflected back at them by the most reactionary elements in the neighborhood. “You and the god-damned liberals, you screamed along with the Blacks in 1968 for community control. You made concessions at Ocean Hill-Brownsville, and now whites want what Blacks have, and you say we can’t have it,” Rieder quotes one Jewish boycott leader. “How come they can do it and we can’t? And so you call us racists!” Another Jewish activist added: “Any kind of equity has to be a two-way street or it’s a no-way street. If you want equality for you, you damn well better be prepared to give that same kind of equality to me. Don’t you dare try to control your district and then try to control mine too.” In the busing fight, white Canarsians saw themselves as the beleaguered and oppressed minority, fighting not just the incursion of Black residents but the ambitions of college-educated white liberals who lived nowhere near them. The Democrats and Lindsay Republicans of Manhattan who supported busing sent their children to private school; they had no stake in the fights at the end of the subway line.
Rieder attempted to probe deeper into the views of white Canarsie residents as a way of comprehending the American electorate of that era. The battles over 1972 would eventually fade and a significant number of whites in the neighborhood were upset at the conduct of the loudest and most racist of their bunch. While Nixon could run strongly in Canarsie, voters drew the line at the overt racism of George Wallace. The arch-segregationist was a huge loser there, even as voters soured on liberals. Natural allies of the left, though, felt uneasy—not due to the gains minorities made in the civil rights era, which they supported, but with the way their own economic standing appeared to be slipping. Stagflation ate away at their wages. The municipal government, so robust in the postwar period, was fast retreating from the outer boroughs as the fiscal crisis loomed. In 1975, the city almost went bankrupt, its tax base depleted by white flight and the collapse of the manufacturing sector. High-paying, unionized jobs in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens vanished, never to be replaced. Anger was aimed at the rich and poor alike. The bosses would always be hated, but so would the so-called “welfare cheats,” those subsisting on government assistance, which had grown since the 1960s. Unable to access Medicaid and food stamps and too poor to ever live on Park Avenue or take a vacation outside the Tri-State Area, the middle-class of Canarsie resented, greatly, the middle place they had found themselves.
And crime, in a very real sense, was climbing. The murder rate began to escalate in the 1960s and petty crimes, like muggings and burglaries, became more common. Canarsie’s proximity to poorer, higher crime neighborhoods fed its reactionary urges. Italian residents spoke of organizing vigilante groups. Holocaust survivors told Rieder they hadn’t felt this unsafe since Nazi Germany. Manhattan liberals could hide behind their doormen, in safer neighborhoods of high-rise and heavily secured apartment buildings. For the working and middle-classes of Canarsie, crime determined much of their outlook. “Many Canarsians, concluding that vast stretches of Brooklyn had become dangerous places, nervously shifted their patterns of movement through the city or retreated into protective asylums,” Rieder writes. “Evasion established a reluctant trade: forgoing the enjoyment of public places like subways, parks, and streets, refusing the risks of lonely dispersion in anonymous urban spaces, and getting in return the safety of a less random, yet less stimulating, environment.”
What lends the book its sweep is its meditation on the nature of backlash politics and the slow collapse of the enormous Democratic coalition that defined American politics for such a long stretch of the twentieth century. As the 1970s wore on, FDR nostalgia could only do so much to keep Democrats from defecting to Republican candidates, though it was an incredibly powerful force, making all kinds of disparate individuals supporters of a more progressive agenda. The middle-aged voters of the 1970s could recall the New Deal vividly. It would be Nixon and later Reagan who cracked this coalition on the national front, driving white registered Democrats into the GOP fold on identity and cultural appeals. At the same juncture, there was no Roosevelt-style figure to retain such staunch Democratic support. Hubert Humphrey was a tired surrogate and George McGovern, an exciting liberal with impressive commitments to civil rights, could only retain backing from the young and college-educated, losing in substantial numbers the white working-class that had always showed up for Democrats.
These trends repeated in Canarsie, with one notable exception: local Democrats could still win. It may surprise modern readers that one of the quiet heroes of Rieder’s book is the future speaker of the New York State Assembly, Stanley Fink, who was then a young assemblyman representing Canarsie. Fink was a machine Democrat, a top lieutenant in the Jefferson Democratic Club, which was resistant to the lauded reform movements of the era. Democratic machines, in popular memory, are derided as cesspools of patronage and misogyny and there was enough of that among the Jefferson Democrats. Meade Esposito, the powerful Brooklyn party boss and the leader of the Jefferson Democrats, was not exactly a font of enlightenment, though he was an opponent of the Vietnam War. What the Jefferson Club did, unlike many local Democratic clubs of the twenty-first century, was aggressively engage with regular voters. They knocked on doors, deluged subway stops and supermarkets with leaflets, and held frequent meetings in a physical clubhouse. They helped community members get jobs and settle disputes. Club members were a tangible neighborhood presence and took their volunteer duties seriously. Going into an election, the Jefferson Club teamed with the large unions of the city to deliver lopsided victories for the local Democratic ticket, moderates and liberals alike. The closest analogue today, in New York, is the Democratic Socialists of America, though the local DSA chapter is a long way from rivaling the Democratic vote-pulling operations of yore.
The Jefferson Club, crucially, was a strong check on the most pernicious strains of the Canarsie backlash vote. The hard-right could scream to the media and blockade a public school, but it could not win an election. Vito Battista, a fiery conservative Republican assemblyman, put it best to Rieder. “I fight with a beanshooter and they have an atomic bomb. They have high-paid patronage workers, judges, the payroll. The Jefferson Club pulled out their buses from the unions, they had twenty-three busloads—Truckers, the Seafarers’ Union, the Longshoreman’s Union, and the Butchers’ Union. The Democrats have the grips on them.” Fink, the state assemblyman with a compact district that took in all of Canarsie, was at the heart of the struggle, facing re-election every two years. Anti-busing Republicans ran hard against Fink and lost handily, thanks to the Jefferson Democrats. While Fink was a quieter critic of the Board of Education’s busing policies—he invoked local control, like his opponents—he was a conscientious liberal on a host of issues that likely cost him support from old-line voters, backing the Equal Rights Amendment and drafting legislation to decriminalize sodomy.
The Reagan and Nixon landslides could not shake the hold of local Democrats on Canarsie. In a time when politics was less polarized and nationalized, a Jefferson Democrat could tout a record of delivering on constituent services, dodging the wrath aimed at a Carter or a Mondale. The combination of an active labor movement and club culture could safeguard Democrats from the sort of popular uprising that would, decades later in the form of Trump, begin to redefine American politics. “Conventional” Republicans like Gerald Ford, Rieder argues, reactivate “lower-middle-class suspicions of Republicans as the party of big business and the country club set.” A version of this occurred in the 2012 election, when Barack Obama was able to comfortably win against Mitt Romney, a millionaire businessman who lacked a populist touch. Romney’s inability to appeal to the working-class allowed Obama to retain support that his successors, Clinton and Biden, would bleed for the rest of the decade. Citing the writer and commentator Kevin Phillips, Rieder presciently warns of what can come after Reagan, “something potentially sinister, an “apple-pie authoritarianism” of the lower middle classes.” It is not hard to imagine the former Canarsians, if living today, voting happily for Trump in 2016 and 2020.
What is to be done? The polarization of the electorate along educational lines, a problem for Democrats that has festered for decades and has accelerated in recent years, puts their national prospects in jeopardy. Working-class Latino voters defected to Trump in 2020. Asian-American voters are swinging Republican too, as are smaller numbers of Blacks. The Democrats are perceived, in large swaths of the country, as a party of the affluent and the educated, a professional-class vehicle that scolds those who are unwilling to act or speak properly. This is not entirely true, but perception goes far in politics. Rieder’s contention, in the 1980s, was that “left-liberals, and to an important extent the Democratic Party, yielded up the center of the political spectrum and the social pyramid. Brooklyn Jews and Italians did not simply bolt the Democratic Party, they were also driven from it.” The center would be filled, in the 1990s, by Clintonian Third Way politics, a briefly winning formula that sacrificed organized labor for a greater share of the Republican vote, rejecting wholesale the New Deal legacy that once made Democrats so potent. Any rebuilding of the working-class coalition would start with organized labor, growing slowly again if nowhere near its twentieth century peak.
It would behoove Democrats to take a lesson from the long-dead urban machines. Party bosses in New York and elsewhere have grown lazy and irrelevant, failing to maintain the grassroots clubs and organizations that drove so much turnout in the last century. Yes, the carrot of patronage is vanishing, but there are organizing opportunities if the party wants to be ambitious and creative enough. The Republican National Committee is setting up de facto clubhouses in rural towns to target minority voters that the Democrats have long taken for granted. The clubhouse model worked because these were physical spaces that served as community hubs, gathering places for hard work and socialization alike. My mother, who still recalls with fondness the Brooklyn clubhouse era of the 1970s and 1980s, sneers somewhat at the Democratic clubs of today that rent out diner backrooms instead of maintaining storefronts that can be accessed on any given day, a worker or volunteer always sitting at the front desk to say hello. This kind of politicking, on its own, isn’t enough to combat the nationalization of American politics. What it could be, though, is a beachhead, the means to a more permanent mobilization that could save the party from itself. If every red wave had Democrats down below able to rally the working-class against a right-wing party that will ultimately punish them, the future would not seem so precarious. In the 1970s, the fervor of an anti-busing movement wasn’t enough to cost a liberal state legislator his career. Fifty years later, under similar circumstances, Stanley Fink probably loses. The infrastructure that saved him would be atrophied. The ill wind would have blown that much harder.