Review of “Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn against Liberalism” by Janathan Rieder

If the Republican Party really longed for power, the Democratic Party never would have survived the ’70s.

At least that’s my takeaway from this book about the political views of some very liberal groups – Jews and Italians – in a New York neighborhood that was . . . becoming more diverse.

Canarsie grew in the years before 1972, as whites from other areas of Brooklyn fled Puerto Rican and black immigration. By the time many of these new whites arrived in Canarsie, they had already fled Brownsville and Flatbush. In the early ’70s, inflation rates effectively prevented these white from fleeing again. At the same time, black immigration to Canarsie increased and school boards began mandating busing.

The book is about what happens when blacks move into a marginal (lower-middle class) white neighborhood. The book is particularly interesting because it’s not about a Southern town and the reactions of it’s border-line slaving-owning and obviously racist white population to forced desegregation. It’s about the reaction to the same forces of a population in a section of progressive city of marginal whites that just happens to be a very progressive group.

The result is about the same as the result of desegregating a less progressive city: “In the fall of 1972, after an integration-minded school board ordered Canarsie to take into its schools a few dozen black children from Brownsville, the residents moved quickly to secure the borders . . . A white boycott of the schools kept ten thousand children from their lessons for a week. A few housewives . . . lobbed rocks at school buses.”

Eventually interest rates fell and the obvious results finally happened. Wikipedia notes that “During the 1990s, much of Canarsie’s white population left for Staten Island, Long Island, and Queens” and that:

Canarsie is home to two high-school campuses, Canarsie Educational Campus and South Shore, and several junior high schools and elementary schools. In late fall 2006, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that five troubled high schools would close by 2010. Among those five were Canarsie’s South Shore and Canarsie High School. According to Melody Meyer, a DOE spokesperson, the closing is attributed to “dismal graduation rates, consistent low test scores, a poor history of educating, low performing students, and lackluster demand.”

With the whites safely on Long Island – and were therefore able to criticize other’s for being racist again – things could go back to normal. But the intervening period was illuminating.

Surprisingly, even the super-progressive Jews of Brooklyn found that “the seamy aspects of ghetto life were so vivid that they overwhelmed the ability of whites to note all the other aspects that did not conform to stereotypes.” Like the super-cheapness of the chalupas!

As crime rates skyrocketed, “people’s homes [become] their prisons.” Historically safe main streets were deserted. The stories of crime that some people were subjected to are truly awful.

These marginal white became angry at the benefits that blacks were receiving. “Gradually the perception had spread among the people of Canarsie that they were being asked to atone for some unconfirmed wrong.” Many of Canarsie’s whites had been on welfare. One man tells his story:

Years ago my father died and left my mother with eight children. We went on welfare and we were visited by a welfare worker at our home periodically to see if my mother was buying foolishly . . . We weren’t allowed a telephone or linoleum. We had to ask. You need these controls on public funds. When my older sister got a job after she graduated . . . they reduced the welfare. And when my second sister went to work, we went off welfare.

The visits had stopped by this point. People just got money and were free to do with it as they pleased. If family members got job, the checks kept coming. The whole notion of family – which basically defined the white communities of Canarsie, particularly the Italians – began to disappear.

The book is also interesting because the Jews and Italians had very different reactions. Both groups were upset, but the Italians fought back. The Jews were content to let the Italians fight, but the Jews quickly started recruiting whites (especially Eastern-European immigrants).

It became clear to everyone that there weren’t enough whites to go around. So schools started competing aggressively for whites. Some even instituted Russian language programs to increase white enrollment.

From a political standpoint, this should have been the end of the New Deal coalition. Instead, Republicans never bothered to capitalize on the fact that Democrats were effectively pushing people out of their homes or threatening the safety of their children in school. It’s easy to see why the electoral college map from 1972 looks like this, but it’s hard to understand why it ever stopped looking like that.

(Thanks to Devin for the recommendation).


10 Responses to Review of “Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn against Liberalism” by Janathan Rieder

  1. asdf says:

    Because the republican party isn’t the party of ordinary whites, its the party of exceedingly rich whites.

  2. josh says:


  3. nydwracu says:

    1972 was probably an exception. Nixon understood democracy, to put it mildly, and had incumbency and his record on his side, whereas McGovern was a bungling idiot and a long shot even in the primary.

    On the other hand, there’s 1980, 1984, and 1988. (I wonder what happened with 1992 onward…)

    And I point out in passing that Nixon won reelection in one of the largest landslides in American history and is now commonly considered one of the worst recent presidents. Democracy!

  4. Nick Steves says:

    It’s easy to see why the electoral college map from 1972 looks like this, but it’s hard to understand why it ever stopped looking like that.

    Well, Nixon did give the Dems a gift… trying to get a dirty leg up on an election he couldn’t possibly have lost.

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  6. Ben says:

    Not a bad piece, but WAY too many grammatical and spelling errors. Please proof read! It would be a great piece otherwise.

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