Monday, October 12, 2020
Today, I celebrate Indigenous People's Day. But to honor Italian Americans, whose profound contribution to this country should be separated from Columbus' legacy of colonization and genocide, I am also celebrating figures like Fiorello La Guardia Sacco and Venzetti Madonna Lady Gaga Joe DiMaggio Rocky Marciano Vito Marcantonio Frank Sinatra Tony Bennett Laura Nyro Ella Grasso Robert DiNiro Martin Scorcese Natalie Merchant Mary Gordon Mario Cuomo Ani DiFranco Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons Nancy Pelosi and of course Dr Anthony Fauci, the Bronx's own Dion DiMucci and my friend the great teacher union leader Anna Fusco. There! I finally said publicly what I have been thinking privately for many years. And who can forget those two great athletes of mixed Italian-American/African-American heritage: Roy Campanella Franco Harris
Monday, October 5, 2020
No Innocence Here: How Irish, Jewish and Italian New Yorkers Benefited From Their Whiteness in Post World War 2 NYC
Whenever I engage in conversations about race with Irish, Jewish or Italian New Yorkers of my generation- or those slightly younger- I am likely to confront some variety of the following argument " I am sick of all this talk about white privilege. Not only did my immigrant ancestors have nothing to do with slavery and segregation, but they faced terrible discrimination when they came here. Moreover, they climbed out of poverty- and finally won acceptance- through generations of hard work, not by asking for handouts or special help from the government. Frankly, I am tired of Black people holding us hostage as though they are the only ones who suffered. If they have problems, it is their own fault." I would be lying if I told you that I have developed a successful response to such comments. People who express such sentiments are deeply invested in the aura of injured innocence they convey. Talking about how the wealth accumulated by slavery made the immigration of their ancestors possible is too abstract to make headway with peope who pride themselves on their practicality and common sense. Plus this all happened almost two hundred years ago. However, the more research I do on Bronx history, and the more discussions i have with my students about this subject, the more i realize that Irish, Italian and Jewish New Yorkers reaped huge advantages over their Black counterparts in post-World War 2 New York, advantages which accelerated their movement into the middle class in a period of unprecedented economic expansion. Black New Yorkers also progressed during these critical years-1945-1960- but their rate of progress was sharply limited by discrimination they faced in housing and employment markets, discrimination that, ironically, was often imposed by people whose ethnic background once made them the targets of discrimination themselves No where was this more visible than in the explosion of middle income housing in NYC and environs after the Second World War. In addition to entirely new suburban communities such as Levittown Long Island, you had middle income apartment complexes such as Parkchester in the Bronx, Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan, the Trump Houses in Coney Island, and the Levitt apartments in Queens. If you add to these the four miles of beautiful apartment buildings along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, you have the portrait of a great American success story of upward mobility and middle class ascendency. You can also see this a triumph of assimilation as the overwhelming majority of occupants of this housing were Irish Jewish and italian. However, such a celebratory portrait can only be sustained by ignoring one stubborn fact--Every single one of these housing complexes, which in total contained hundreds of thousands of residents, maintained "white only" policies and kept Black tenants and home buyers out. If you were Black even if you had a good income, even if you were eligible for loans from the GI Bill, you couldn't rent an apartment along the Grand Concourse, in Parkchester or Stuyvestant town, in the Trump or Levitt Houses, and you couldn't buy a home in Levittown. Worse yet, these policies, challenged by civil rights groups through lawsuits and complaints to Human Rights Commissions, didn't change until the 1960's And just in case someone asked, the people who enforced these policies, as well as those who lived in the communities in question, were not Southern segregationists, but Irish, Jewish and italian New Yorkers who once faced discrimination themselves! You see a similar pattern in post world war 2 labor markets. Three of the most vibrant industries in post war NYC were construction, banking and insurance. Black people were completely excluded from all three of these industries until the late 1960's, And while you could argue that banking and insurance were for the most park white Protestant enclaves, in which Irish and Jewish people had created hard won enclaves, construction in NYC, in the post war era, almost exclusively employed Irish and Italian workers, especially in the most highly skilled categories And here you have an terrible irony- construction in NYC after WW 2, entirely populated by the descendents of once despised European immigrants, enforced a lily white policy that limited access of Black people to the highest paying blue collar jobs in NYC Think about what you have just read: when you limit access to the best housing and the best jobs in a city on the basis of race, you are severely handicapping the economic progress of those facing these bans. These were barriers Black people faced alone in post war NYC. Their Irish, Jewish and Italian counterparts didn't suffer the same fate when color lines were drawn. And sadly, tragically, they were often the ones drawing the lines
Saturday, September 19, 2020
Like RBG, I grew up in Brooklyn in a time when young people like us- the children and grandchildren of once despised immigrants- had hope that the country would finally welcome us and that we could change it for the better. People like Carol King, who went to the same high school as RBG, used music as their vehicle of expression; people like Bernie Sanders( also a Madison grad) found their mission in electoral politics; Ruth Bader Ginsburg transformed the nation through the practice of law Although I went to different high schools than they did, I was swept up in the optimism of post war America and saw no contradiction between my own dreams of upward mobility and my vision of the US as a more just society. Today, as dreams of upward mobility fade in an increasingly unequal society, and racism and white supremacy have returned to haunt us in the ugliest forms, we should take the time to honor Justice Ginsberg for devoting her life to bringing out the best in this country, and the best in all of us. We may no longer have Justice Ginsburg as a daily presence, but we have to work extra hard to keep her dreams and her legacy alive If we don't do this, we may see the US become a place that people of conscience have to leave, rather than a place which dreamers from all over the world see as a place to fulfill their destiny
Friday, September 11, 2020
I have been teaching the history of race in America for more than 50 years, largely to college students, and have been writing about that history even longer. Hundreds of my students have taught this subject on a high school and elementary school level; a slightly smaller number teach it at Universities, and a few of my students have become world renowned scholars in the fields of race studies and African American History And I will tell you this--- NOTHING, and I mean NOTHING, can stop the progression of scholarship in African American history and its honest uncovering of just how much of the wealth of US society was created through the forced labor of people of African descent, some of it occurring after slavery ended.. If people are threatened by bringing this history into the workplace, into schools, into private businesses, even into the sports arena, they are going to be very disappointed in how rapidly this kind of inquiry is spreading. I can tell you this- it is certainly spreading at Fordham. And will continue to spread when people in my generation retire.
Sunday, September 6, 2020
The Donald Trump Presidency represents the ascendancy of the worst impulses in US History- a turn toward racism and xenophobia at the expense of the idealistic and optimistic impulses that made this country a symbol of hope to immigrants the world over. It is not a foreign implant- it is the ghost of slave auctions, internment camps, lynching parties and massacres of Native Peoples coming back to haunt us. This is why Trump has just banned anti- racist education and training in federal agencies. He does not want people to be exposed to the full extent of the crimes that were committed in the name of white supremacy, crimes that his own Administration want excised from its vision of American identity If you want a sanitized portrait of the American past, or a normalization of the nation's current political atmosphere, you will not find it here Every day, I am going to sound the alarm about the dangers Donald Trump and his supporters pose to future of this country and do so by invoking examples from US and world history. That is going to be my mission until this election is over and quite possibly for years to come.
Thursday, September 3, 2020
Yesterday, Paul Cannon made the big announcement; after two decades leading a great elementary school in the same Bronx neighborhood he grew up in- PS 140 in Morrisania- he was retiring from the NYC Department of Education. My emotions about this announcement are mixed. On the one hand, I am happy that Mr Cannon will be able to escape the stress and sleepless nights that are the Principal's lot during this Pandemic. On the other hand, I am sad that a new generation of young people will lack the guidance of a person who loved his school, loved his students, loved the Bronx and loved life. I first met Paul Cannon during the heroic early days of the Bronx African American History Project when we were doing 3 oral history interviews a week, many of them documenting the rise of a Black community in the Bronx neighborhood of Morrisania. Someone who knew Paul set the interview up, and it was a memorable experience. An older gentleman who joined Paul for the interview shared some memorable stories about life in the legendary Blue Morrocco, one of Morrisania's leading music clubs in the 50's and 60's; Paul himself regaled us with stories about growing up on Union Avenue and having to run home from Columbus High School whenever the Italian kids at that school got in a fight with a Black kid; but the thing that impressed me most during the interview was Paul describing how he organized Sunday basketball games for neighborhood fathers at PS 140 so they would be more involved with their children's education. Any principal who was in their school 7 days a week had my attention, and I arranged to visit PS 140 on a school day and play in one of the Sunday basketball game Thus began a 15 year relationship between PS 140 and the Bronx African American History Project that has included numerous visits by its students to Fordham, the creation of an "Old School Museum" in the school honoring the legacy of Historic Morrisania, "School Yard Jams" where students dressed up and performed the music of neighborhood artists like the Chantels, Eddie Palmieri and Grandmaster Flash- one of which took place at the 2008 Convention of the Organization of American Historians-and tours of the school which I organized for visitors ranging from a member of the NY State Board of Regents, to education scholar Pedro Noguera, to social workers and musicians from Germany. What stands out most to me from all these visits and events is Paul Cannon's love for his students, his determination to do everything possible to make his school a welcoming place, from having beautiful murals all over the building, to having couches in the school lobby for neighborhood grandparents, and his genius in making Bronx pride and Morrisania pride an integral part of his school culture! You could not enter PS 140 without feeling the joy with which Mr Cannon approached his job, even at a time when schools in the Bronx were being threatened with closure and deluged with tests. Under those pressures, many schools in the Bronx closed down their community history programs and did nothing but test prep. Not Mr Cannon. Even in the height of the school closing mania under Michael Bloomberg, at PS 140, community history was always front and center Paul Cannon is a true hero of the Bronx-someone who took pride in its history, shared that pride, and used it to enhance the experience of thousands of young people growing up in the Borough. He also turned his school into a center for neighborhood renewal efforts, working with the Bronx Old Timers group to organize summer programs for local youth and have streets and schoolyards land marked to honor neighborhood heroes. I always tell my students that though many people associate the Bronx with crime and decay, its revival in the face of multiple catastrophes make it a great American success story. Paul Cannon is one of the individuals who spearheaded that revival. Working with him, and building a friendship with him, has been one of the great joys of my life
Wednesday, September 2, 2020
To all the people who will be voting for Trump in spite of, and perhaps because of, his cruelty, his lies, his incompetence and his fomenting of violence and racial divisions. You have your own reasons for doing this, your own moral calculus through which you can explain your actions. What you are doing not only saddens me, it enrages me. I may not say anything or do anything about my feelings. People have the right to vote for who they want to. But I will not soon forget this injury, to me, my students, my family, and my country, To me, voting for Donald Trump is a rejection of everything I was taught to aspire to when I grew up in a more innocent age. It is a rejection of everything I was taught that America represented. Given what we know about him, what we learn about him every day, the Donald Trump Presidency marks the end of the grand illusion that the United States was a society that other nations should aspire to be like, and that people all over the world would want to come to Now, we are just another failed state led by liars and thieves, a place where raw power rules, where there is no common legal or moral fabric, and where the rich and powerful get their way without significant opposition I guess I should be thankful to you for killing a dream that was always an illusion. But those dreams motivated me powerfully during my childhood and youth, and I mourn their passing. The America of my dreams is dying fast. I am not sure there are enough people who care enough to revive it