Jonathan Rieder Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn against Liberalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985)
Mary L. Nash
Book Review: Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn against Liberalism by Jonathan Rieder (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985)
In 1964, Bob Dylan told the nation "The times they are a changin." By the close of the turbulent sixties, nothing better described the decade than Dylan's prophetic words. Desegregation, civil rights, the birth control pill, welfare, affirmative action, the sexual revolution and bilingual education were all changes born out of a time marred by violence, hostility, war and above all else, racism. For many people, change is not a positive concept because with change comes uncertainty and subsequently, fear. For the Brooklyn community of Canarsie, a predominantly low to middle class Jewish and Italian neighborhood, changes brought about by the Civil Rights Movement and a decade immersed in liberalism threatened their livelihood and forced them to retaliate in what sociologist Jonathan Rieder calls "white backlash." Between 1975 and 1977, Rieder lived in Brooklyn, submerging himself in a community of white ethnics who feared that changing racial boundaries would negatively affect the harmonious middle class existence they had struggled so hard to achieve. The product of Rieder's time in this neighborhood is an ethnographic study of the residents that attempts to explain why a once liberal community turned its back on the Democratic Party in favor of staunch conservatism. Canarsie is a provocative look at how the Democrats lost the white lower to middle class vote and how one time supporters of civil rights could resort to tactics and beliefs that once characterized the Jim Crow south.
In the 1800's Canarsie was an Italian fishing community. It remained a predominantly blue-collar Italian village until the early 1960's when middle to upper class Jewish immigrants moved in attracted to Canarsie's nice homes and good schools. They had fled to Canarsie because their near by communities, towns like Brownsville, were increasingly turning into ghettos marred by violence and crime. Canarsie was symbolic of the American dream. The community offered good schools, affordable homes and a serene and safe existence. According to Rieder, most of the Italians and the newly arrived Jews were not strangers to ghetto communities and tenement homes. For them, living in Canarsie meant that a ghetto free existence was attainable and that the American dream was not just a dream. Although there were class and religious tensions among the newly arrived Jews and the long-standing Italian residents, for the most part they set aside their differences to create a unified front and prevent who they perceived as undesirables from coming into their haven and turning it into yet another ghetto. According to Rieder, "They made their community into a fortress, a fenced land" (19). Fear of returning to a life in the ghetto and pride in the little suburbia they had created, united two vastly different ethnic groups in a fight against intrusion from the underclass.
The undesirables, also referred to as the underclass, were the blacks and the Puerto Ricans whom Canarsians associated with poverty, crime and a general lack of morals. Through interviews with the residents, Rieder paints a picture of a community terrified of loosing their piece of the American dream. Fight as they did, by the mid sixties, a slumping economic market gave blacks and Hispanics a way into the once all white community. Some sections of Canarsie were hit with such an influx of minorities that it created white flight leaving the community even more vulnerable to intrusion. As the racial lines shifted, Canarsians continued to resist the intrusion, even if it meant becoming violent. Suddenly residents who had once been associated with liberalism were becoming the racist bigots that at one time they purported to abhor. In addition, the community was becoming a riotous, violent lot indicative of those they sought to keep out of their haven.
The new residents of Canarsie were dehumanized; they were labeled "Niggers," "animals" and "cockroaches" by a group of people who had at one time themselves been the object of societal scorn for having different religious and/or cultural beliefs. Canarsians believed that they were the victims of the liberals who voted for civil rights and desegregation. The changes brought about by a liberal government drastically changed their existence by challenging the cultural hegemony within their community. By showing that Jews and Italians, two groups in history who have been victims of persecution, could be prejudiced and racist, Rieder subtly questions the plight of the rest of the population. If Catholic Italians and especially Jews could forget how they were discriminated against and punished for being different, was there any hope that the rest of America could evoke sympathy for a race that for centuries was treated as chattel and forced to live in the shadows of the dominant group? Rieder does not answer this question. He does not need to because the answer lies within the responses of white Canarsians he interviewed.
Rieder fills his book with interviews with the angriest residents of Canarsie. Among both the Jews and Italians there is a belief that they worked hard for what little they had and they clearly resented neighboring blacks being able to gain entrance into Middle America on welfare and affirmative action. They cannot acknowledge that such liberal reforms were created to level the playing field. Civil rights could not be obtained in reality without creating measures to account for existing institutional racism. But instead of seeing programs such as welfare and affirmative action as avenues to equality, residents of Canarsie viewed them as liberal excesses designed to circumvent hard work and reward indolence. They could not recognize how centuries of racism and segregation could not be erased over night. The hostility of Canarsians towards their new black neighbors and social welfare programs suggests that Middle America had no or very little sympathy for blacks and that support of civil rights ended with the passage of 1964 Civil Rights Act. According to Rieder, "They accepted the concept of civil rights, liberty for all, and freedom of expression until it impinged on them and their basic right to maintain the kind of society which doesn't threaten them" (58).
The bulk of Rieder's book is spent explaining why a group of former liberals, with a shared past of discrimination, could break with Democratic ideals and take violent measures to prevent infringement into their community. Through countless interviews Rieder almost gives the impression that the Jews and Italians were justified in taking extreme measures to protect their haven. His interviewees retell accounts of black on white violence without provocation, rampant crime in predominantly black neighborhoods and high rates of drug addiction, alcoholism, cohabitation and unwed pregnancies among blacks. After a while, the reader is so flooded with negative images of black life that even the most diehard of liberals could be imagined erecting an electric fence around the perimeters of Canarsie. However, what happened in Canarsie was that those diehard liberals fled to the suburbs, giving those whom remained even more reason to break with liberalism. Rieder makes comments throughout the book suggesting that his sympathies lie with Canarsians. He states early on that "Canarsians' obsession with the worst in ghetto life reflected ghetto realities: a high proportion of lower-class blacks and soaring rates of drug addiction, family breakdown, and criminality" (63). He offers no statistical support to sustain this claim suggesting that he believes the fears that Canarsians had about ghetto life ruining their peaceful family environment were grounded in reality.
Rieder is not concerned with the black perspective. Less than a handful of blacks were interviewed in this book. However, in Rieder's defense, the focus of this book is not race relations. The book attempts to explain what brought one time Democrats to break with the party and instigate the controversial Canarsie school boycott in 1972-73 over the busing of near by black children into their school district. Although some members of the community clearly held racist believes, the real issue that originally prompted Canarsians to retaliate so strongly when minorities began to encroach on their turf was poverty, not race. Sociologists use the term culture of poverty to describe a deviant way of living that involves lack of planning for the future, no enduring commitment to marriage and absence of the Protestant work ethic. The culture of poverty follows the poor even when they find refuge in middle class societies. Blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately represented in this culture because for so long the laws forbid them entrance into the work force, which prohibited them from adopting middle class values. Thus race and poverty became intertwined when Canarsians took hostile measures to prevent neighboring blacks into their community.
Residents protested ghetto life, or the culture of poverty to use sociological jargon. A culture that lacked respect for its community, had no strong familial connections and was devoid of any work ethic was a threat to middle America. Race became the focal issue after some hoodlums who happened to be black physically beat and robbed some Canarsie residents. When Black on White crime occurred in this once peaceful neighborhood, fear spread through the community uniting the residents. Subsequently all crime became associated with Black life and everything evil in the world: crime, violence, immorality and lack of respect for family and community became characteristic of the Black culture. One Canarsian stated, "Those niggers are the marauders of Brownsville. They ruined Brownsville, but I won't let them ruin Canarsie. I'll join a terror squad to keep them out" (200). Unfortunately, Canarsians lost sight of the real threat- poverty and the culture it breeds. Instead of working collectively to fight poverty, they let fear convince them that Blacks were the enemy and that they had to be kept out of their community at any cost.
When Rieder does delve into the school boycott that boasted the slogan "Canarsie Schools for Canarsie Children," the framework is established to understand why the community reacted as it did. They feared their community would be destroyed by ghetto life just as Brownsville and New York City had. There were many problems with the boycott, but the main one was the fact that Canarsians attempted to resolve economic and political problems, which had a much larger scope than their neighborhood. "They were trying to resolve problems caused by forces of economics, politics and culture that were remote from the ken and control of the neighborhood" (203). This may seem like Rieder is again being sympathetic to Canarsians, however, in his examination of the actions of residents in the school boycott, he paints a portrait of a community run by a militant minority so steadfast in its desire to keep strangers out that the issues at hand became blurred. Radical players in the boycott like the Italian League and the Concerned Citizens of Canarsie lost all objectivity and projected their fear of change onto 31 black students from Tilden. Rieder does not hold any sympathies for the radicals who spread the fear that allowing blacks in would somehow destroy the community. He stated, "The radicals did not invent the mood of apocalypse. They embodied and inflamed it" (225).
Rieder does his best to remain neutral and just report the facts of the boycott and the events that led up to it. He does not specially blame any particular ethnic group for the volatile situation in Canarsie; he just blames the radicals for making a bad situation worse. However, Rieder's language usage and choice of quotes suggests that in his estimation the Italians are by far the worst culprits of racial and class intolerance in Canarsie, with the Jews a distant second. It is the Italians who use the word Nigger as if it is necessary to their survival, value vengeance, believe in doing onto others before they do unto you and are at the forefront of the boycott movement. The Jews on the other hand are described as passive, educated, tolerant, sympathetic and in a constant struggle in regards to what measures should be taken to protect their community. Rieder often selected quotes and remembrances that illustrated this dichotomy:
"As I watched a group of Italian boys storm out of a bagel and bialy shop in hot pursuit of three blacks bicycling down Flatlands Avenue to the barks of 'Get the niggers,' I felt transported to a world of lynch mobs and magnolia trees. An elderly Jewish woman grabbed hold of my shirt and cried out against such Cossacklike practices…'Those black boys didn't even do anything'" (182).
In the end however, neither group is positively reflected. Both the Jews and Italians are depicted as having more of a penchant for avarice and malice than generosity. Instead of sharing the American dream with others who struggled as they once did, they chose to go to extreme, albeit futile, lengths to keep their corner of middle America predominantly white. In response to their inability to replenish white homeowners with other white homeowners, Canarsie residents devised underhanded real estate schemes such as only advertising houses for sale in Jewish, Italian and Chinese papers and intimidating realtors into consulting the community about prospective buyers before selling a house. Some members of the community even attempted bombing the homes of whites who tried to sell to blacks. Canarsians, blinded by racism, were so concerned with protecting the white hegemony of the area that they failed to see how their hostile efforts to keep Canarsie an impenetrable fortress actually contributed to her infiltration. Their radical actions pushed the more liberal and elite of the community out into other suburbs, lowering the already plummeting housing values.
Rieder's proverbial beef however, is not necessarily with the inherent racism and classism that led Canarsians to vehemently protect their territory. He is disillusioned over their break with liberalism that led to an era of Republicanism. He claims that somewhere in the seventies Canarsie and subsequently Middle America abandoned the Democratic Party. His description of the change however gives credence to the switch rather than blames middle class society for becoming conservative. Rieder describes the nation in the seventies as being imbued in sexual freedom, pornography, crime, drugs, welfare and general immorality and the existing government as unable to protect society from those social ills. If as Rieder claims, "Traditionalists in Canarsie felt besieged by a tide of permissiveness in family life, jurisprudence, school curricula, patriotic observance, sexual relations and religious matters," then they would be justified in finding other means to protect what they valued: family, honor, pride and community (132). However, Rieder appears to denounce Canarsians for finding alternatives to preserving their way of life.
"They resorted to arson, racist ranting and vigilantism. They engaged in ethnic feuding, formed block associations and crime patrols, and tried civil disobedience to halt busing. They fashioned new concepts of racial pride, middle-class pride and ethnic pride…And they voted, sometimes with feet, at other times with fists, but especially by deserting the Democratic party, smiling upon the Republican party, and chasing after third parties" (173).
Rieder berates Canarsians for abandoning the Democratic Party while simultaneously justifying their switch to conservatism. They didn't desert the Democratic Party like Rieder contends; the party deserted them. In their eyes, the government was now catering to the needs of minorities and the poor with such liberal reforms as affirmative action and welfare while they struggled to eke out a meager existence to preserve their harmonious and safe neighborhood. The community of Canarsie, desperate to cling to the traditions of the past and maintain the safe haven they worked hard to achieve, felt betrayed by liberalism and thus gave their loyalties to the party whom they believed would best protect their interests.
Set against the backdrop of change that characterized the sixties, Jews and Italians of Canarsie took drastic measures to protect the racial and class purity of their community. Rieder does an excellent job of explaining why the community thought they needed to resort to violence, vigilantism, a school boycott and under handed housing practices to preserve their way of life. Where he fails however, is in his political analysis of why Middle America as represented by Canarsie became a mostly Republican group. In his attempt to blame Canarsians for abandoning the Democratic ideals that gave birth to civil rights he justifies their switch to conservatism. More importantly, however, he ignores the changes in the Democratic Party that suddenly placed traditionalist liberals at odds with the party. On August 6, 1965 Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act giving African Americans in Johnson's words "the most powerful instrument ever devised for breaking down injustice"- the right to vote. Suddenly over a million blacks were voting, and they were overwhelming voting Democratic. As blacks voted and persons of color were elected to local and national offices the party inevitably changed to meet the needs of its growing constituency. Issues like discrimination and poverty demanded attention and rightfully so. If civil tights were to be achieved in reality then programs had to be instituted to compensate for the still existing racial and economic disparities between whites and Blacks. Residents of Canarsie saw new programs designed to level the playing field in opposition to their traditional values. Suddenly others were living at almost their same economic standard without working and qualified Canarsians were loosing jobs to minority applicants. Upper class liberals were not as affected by such changes. They had the money to live where they pleased, they weren't competing for jobs with minorities and they were never in jeopardy of being the minority in their own community. If civil rights and integration were to be successful, liberal reforms were necessary. Perhaps the Democratic Party did abandon the white ethnics whose support made it strong, but centuries of discrimination could not and would not dissipate with only the passage of the Civil Rights Act and desegregation. Unfortunately Rieder fails to recognize how liberalism changed, and had to change to make civil rights a success. Instead, he elects to place blame with Middle America for abandoning a party whose interests were no longer aligned with their own. Although change was difficult for Canarsie, in the long run many of the liberal reforms of the sixties brought this country closer to embracing the principles of freedom established by our nation's founders.
Adam D. Kinzinger
Political Science 334- Dr. Gary Klass
Reider, Jonathan. Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against
Liberalism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1985.
Imagine that you have been transported into the 1970's. The situation: many
local residents have spent their whole lives to this point, idealistic about
race and defending those whom they perceived as oppressed. The problem: now
they begin to feel the affects of their hard work, but not in positive terms.
Their property, whom most spend their whole lives attaining, begins to slip
in value, and the party they supported begins to leave them in the dust in an
effort to help a population that residents perceive as jointly sharing a zero
sum game. While this situation may seem to describe something most would be
unwilling to live firsthand, this is exactly what CANARSIE's author did.
From 1975-1977, Jonathan Reider, a sociologist from Barnard College, moved
into the tense area of Brooklyn known as Canarsie, in order to understand the
social factors, tensions, and dynamics at work in this area. Two years of
exhaustive interviews, questions, observations, and analysis went into this
book to provide a comprehensive understanding of the struggles faced by the
As blacks from the surrounding areas began moving into Canarsie, residents
were forced to truly assess their feelings towards the black community. In
exploring this, the author draws frequent distinctions were drawn between the
middle class blacks, and what the locals referred to as the "niggers of the
ghettos." (59). Use of street slang, walking styles, and overall attitudes
of non-assimilation often characterized differences. One Canarsie resident
summed up this view: "These maniacs, the way they walk the streets and the
language they use, forget it. They curse the way we say 'hello, how are
you?'" (60). Increases in muggings and robberies began to imprint the minds
of residents that with an increase in blacks, came an increase in crime. "A
liberal is a conservative who hasn't been mugged yet," was a common saying
within Canarsie. Reider theorized that urban dwellers scan their environment
to determine danger, and use previous experiences as a biased prejudgment
The history of Canarsie is dynamic. Predominantly an Italian community,
Canarsie began to attract a large number of Jews who were fleeing surrounding
areas to escape the ghettoization of their neighborhoods, (sometimes referred
to as white flight). While religious differences created stress between the
two newly combined groups, this stress paled in comparison to the fight they
were about to embark upon, together. When confronted with a common enemy
(incoming blacks), these two groups decided not to let religion split them in
their common fight. Affordable housing, and panic added to the tensions
between whites and blacks. Whites feared a depressed housing appraisal and
desperately sold to the first buyer, black or white. With blacks becoming
increasingly able and interested in living in Canarsie, their numbers
increased. So did the incidents of violence and hatred.
To work against this pattern, the Jewish community set up a housing program,
in which a white owner looking to sell would alert the leaders in the
community, who in turn, would advertise the sale in news publications
specific to desirable ethnic groups. While this less violent method slowed
the progression of blacks into Canarsie, some were still unhappy.
Firebombings intimidated other families looking to sell black.
The main focus of CANARSIE, however, involved the splitting of traditional
liberals with their Democratic Party. Italians and Jews were beginning to
face the fact that the Democratic Party, in which they had placed so much
faith before, was no longer a party strictly for them, the working man. Now
they had to share the party with the very minorities who were threatening
their personal economic well-being. Tradition remained strong, however, and
many of the Jewish residents felt as though they would sell out their
forefathers if they voted Republican. The same did not hold as true of the
Italian population, who by and large, were more at ease pulling the
Republican lever. Machine politics played a vital role in Canarsie. State
Assemblyman Fink was seen as having the power to chase blacks out of
Canarsie, but was unwilling to do so. Thus, Republican's put up contenders
for his position, but could not overcome the machine political establishment
(the Jeffersonian Democratic Club). The Club, however, became progressively
weaker throughout the book's duration, unable to cope with the growing
backlash, and increasing numbers of Republicans.
The Italians were "stay and fight" Republicans, with a desire to maintain a
white Canarsie by any means necessary. One extreme incident depicted a group
of Italian youths who noticed a black youth looking into the back yard of a
Canarsie resident. Believing that the black youth meant to cause harm, the
group chased him onto a bus where he was brutally beaten (179). Retaliations
resulted in a kind of viscous circle. According to Reider, two separate
justice systems had emerged: the formal, and an informal system consisting of
self-made rules (179)
While blacks played a central role in this book, there is very little black
perspective included. This is understandable since the author did not live
with blacks and the book is not about the black perspective. This fact
unintentionally added to the impression that residents of Canarsie were
justified in their anti-black feelings. One side of the issue was analyzed,
as were those always involved residents who were able to expound on their
feelings. The thoughts and feelings of the discussed group were notably
absent-with a few exceptions.
If one is interested in understanding the shifts of political values as
experienced in Middle America, Canarsie may provide adequate insight into why
local politics changed as it did in this situation. Reider was able to
transpose the feelings of the residents into the pages of a book, but he used
a sociologist word jargon that made some of his ideas difficult to
comprehend. He also coupled analysis of the people with his personal
feelings, which made it difficult to distinguish between fact and opinion.
It also made his views difficult to pin down. Reider seems to blame Canarsie
residents for abandoning the Democratic Party, yet it seemed as if their
changes were justified. Since this book focused largely on the local context
of Canarsie, national occurrences were somewhat ignored. Nevertheless,
President Carter's failures, as perceived, were discussed and analyzed and
the ramifications were evident in the voting results of the Canarsie
precincts, which provided for some context to compare national politics with
the local trends.
CANARSIE could have been improved by a simplification of language; however,
it is essential to note the audience to which it was written. Undoubtedly,
the author had a more educated audience in mind, as the average reader
without an interest in race relations or some other similar sociological
interest would likely not pick the book for pleasure.
CANARSIE was an interesting work in helping to understand racial dynamics,
albeit seems to show a more simplistic cause and effect relationship between
races. Action X lead to reaction Y, and reaction Y led to a second reaction,
Z. Race and race relations involve a much more complex thought process.
This book is recommended reading for someone with an interest in black/white
relations in the inner city, as for anyone interested in studying the
decline/rise of political or factional parties in the city. It is not
recommended reading for anyone looking for an answer to race relations.
Reider, Jonathan; Canarsie The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism. Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts 1985. Reviewed by Amy M. Smith.
What causes racism? Who is susceptible? Race relations are a complex web of identity and politics. While trying to understand the dynamics of a move away from what he calls liberalism, Jonathan Rieder’s analysis of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Canarsie illustrates these complexities. From housing discrimination to school boycotts to violent vigilantism and fire bombings, Canarsie’s Jewish and Italian communities demonstrated the growth and escalation of racism. Canarsie gives a glimpse into the process that creates hate and prejudice in the hearts and minds of ordinary people.
Reider’s Canarsie focuses on the causes rather than the consequences of racism. Reider starts out by looking at the formation of racism in middle class Americans. Reider spent several years living in close contact with and studying the people of Canarsie. In his study of this community, Reider attempts to understand the change in values and political alignment that occurred in the middle class following the civil rights movement.
Many of the Jews and Italians living in Canarsie had come there after fleeing communities like East Flatbush and Brownsville after low income blacks had moved into them. The close contact between middle class Jews and Italians created clashes between class cultures. Canarsian’s associated the culture of poverty and ghetto life; including crime, drugs and sexual promiscuity, with all blacks and Hispanics. They perceived the minorities of the ghetto as a threat to their communities and their piece of the American dream.
While the two groups (Jewish and Italian) did not always live together harmoniously, the fear of outsiders brought them together. These close communalist communities turned an ugly face to their black and Hispanic neighbors. The Jew’s and Italian’s of Canarsie allowed encounters with a few blacks in surrounding neighborhoods to prejudice their encounters and potential encounters with all blacks and Hispanics. Reider gives the example of a woman who had once been an activist protesting against rent exploitation in black neighborhoods. She explains that
“I didn’t have such hatred before. I started disliking the blacks about ten years ago, in 1967. I was on a subway and got mugged. I still don’t know why they slashed my face with a razor. It was a black girl and a Puerto Rican that done it. That finished me feeling sorry for them.
The actions that played out these prejudices, referred to by Reider as ‘white backlash,' started out as simple exclusion. White Canarsians formed neighborhood block associations and attempted to keep community members from selling their houses to minority buyers. These groups put pressure on their neighbors to ‘sell to their own kind.' These pressures where social, economic and even physical threats in some cases. Neighborhood organizations took measures to make sure homes were not advertised in places where minorities were likely to read them. Rather then place an add in the New York Times, Jewish and Italian sellers would advertise in ethnic newspapers and boycott real-estate agents who sold to black buyers.
Prejudice, however, festers and grows into hate as it is passed on from generation to generation. Busing and integration in Canarsie schools brought prejudice and violence towards minority children from both parents and children of the white community. When New York attempted to rezone and bring more black children into Canarsie, parents, organized in part by the PTA and Italian-American Civil Rights League, demonstrate outside the school and boycotted by keeping their children at home. Among older children in Canarsie High School, racism took the forms of riots and gangs. Parents felt their children were threatened by the presence of black children and encouraged fighting. Many, especially Italians, carried weapons and encouraged their children to carry weapons. The fear of each other created gangs that formed around ethnic hatred. Often local cops turned a blind eye and told gangs of Italian boys to ‘do what you gotta do’.
While Reider takes a deep look at the issue of racism forming and escalating among the white communities, he does not explain or attempt to understand what was happening on the black side of racial conflict in Canarsie. In many of the examples Reider gives of the crime in Canarsie that helped form racial hatred among Jews and Italian, the victims are target because they are white. They are perceived as an ‘other’ and a threat. By reacting to violence and hate with more of the same, Canarsie intensified the problem. The fear of black parents for the safety of their children is mentioned only briefly, and only in regards to elementary children. Prejudice is usually a two way street. Black perceptions of and attitudes towards whites helped create the perceptions of hostility and distrust among Canarsiens. White exclusionism and vigilantism helped create fearful and violent reactions from blacks. The omission of the point of view of one half of the conflict hurts this studies’ potential as a useful tool for understanding racial conflict.
The obscure points made throughout the book to liberalism and conservatism seem irrelevant, as they are ambiguous concepts. Reider equates the turn away from liberalism with the formation of strong racial prejudice. He shows how the Jewish community became conservative out of fear and self interest. Interwoven with the formation of anti-integration convictions, once liberal Canarsiens also become antigun control, and other views that “devalue abstract concepts of rights...(and suggest) that democracy might be too dangerous in a volatile plural society”(Reider 189). Underlying his sociological study of racial contact and conflict, Reider has a clear political agenda. He seems to emphasize Canarsie’s turn away from liberalism, while ignoring the wider social implications of racial prejudice. In his criticism of Canarsie, he does not even attempt to be objective. Instead, he makes a plea for the Democratic party to cater more to these ethnic groups in order to keep them on the liberal side of politics. It is not hard to guess that Reider considers himself a liberal. While he shows why the lower class Jews turned away from liberalism, he does show how liberalism turned away from them. This Analysis also fails to give any possible solutions to any of the problems illustrate by Reider. Is integration hopeless? Should we give up on the idea of an pluralistic and equitable American society for liberal political unity?
CANARSIE: THE JEWS AND ITALIANS OF BROOKLYN AGAINST LIBERALISM. By
Jonathan Rieder. Illustrated. 290pp. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard
University Press. $22.50.
Reviewed by: Stephanie Budzina (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Reagan presidential victory in 1980 was a shock to
many liberals. One liberal, Jonathan Rieder, was perhaps not so surprised
by this conservative victory. Rieder had already been questioning the
liberal crisis in a political microcosm called Canarsie. Rieder spent
1975-1977 studying the lower-middle-class neighborhood of Canarsie in
Brooklyn. In his urban ethnography, Canarsie: The Jews And Italians Of
Brooklyn Against Liberalism, Rieder seeks to explain how the Democratic
Party could have lost its blue-collar support. So, this book is also a
political analysis. The social changes beginning in the late 1960's had
set the stage for middle-class backlash. In short, the Reagan victory in
1980 was a vote to stop this rapid social change.
Two themes reoccur in this ethnography: racism and
politics. The Jews and Italians of Canarsie were blue-collar workers who
wanted to hold on to the ethnic purity of their neighborhood. Having
twice fled other neighborhoods because of crime and decay, the Jews and
Italians were fed up and did not want to be pushed out of another
neighborhood. Since the Jews themselves had been persecuted for so long,
some found it difficult to flee their neighborhood. They did not want to
give in to racist sentiments when African-Americans and Latinos started
moving in next door. But the daily reality of crime and fear forced them
out. So while the Italians showed the Jews how to stand fast, the Jews
also taught Italians the political rhetoric for their unified fight
against the encroaching minority population.
The Canarsians are not portrayed so much as racists, though. They
are people caught up in the politics of proximity. Since they only live
near lower-class minorities, they choose to see all minorities like the
lower-class people. Also, they are still so close to their old neighborhood
that they can see the decay on a daily basis and this really affects
the Canarsians. These minorities (on welfare) did not share the same
values as middle-class minorities. Although, the Canarsians themselves
were new middle-class citizens (sometimes only by a generation). They,
too, had come from the lower-classes. Rieder attempts to show both sides
of the coin. He shows the ignorant side of some Canarsians with SPONGE
(Society for the Prevention of Niggers Getting Everything), but he also
shows the real fear of Canarsians who have been victims of crime.
The lofty ideal of all people living in harmony was just not a daily
reality for Canarsians. While wealthier liberals looked down on Canarsians
as prejudiced, the Canarsians started to take a long, hard look at their
liberal roots. The encroaching welfare recipients are portrayed as
ruining their neighborhoods and no one was there to help the Jews and
Italians. So they unified to keep poor minorities away from their
community. The Canarsians looked to political figures to condemn the
seemingly immoral behavior of the poor but found no solace. According to
this book, this is a main reason the Democratic Party alienated so many
The author seems to be struggling with his own liberal
leanings throughout the book. He is empathetic bordering on sympathetic
in some parts. His liberal leaning is also obvious in the fact that he
treats the change from liberalism to conservatism as a problem, not just
as a social phenomenon. He is somewhat of a participant-observer,
treating the lives of these people as a sociological experiment. The
book, written in academic prose, gets wordy at times, but still holds the
readers' interest. Rieder also seems to personify such abstracts concepts
as liberalism. He treats liberalism as the force that is destroying the
neighborhood, instead of everyday actions by real people.
Rieder also misses a huge chunk of the big picture: the encroaching
minorities. One of the few minority insights comes from an African-Americ
an preacher who is tired of being pushed away by whites but also recognizes
that the whites are tired of running. It is hard to discern the racists
from the victims.
The reader only has a chance to see unruly minorities on welfare because
that is the Canarsians' perception. Perhaps it was not the author's
intent to study minorities, but when they are the scapegoat for an entire
community, something more should be written from their perspective. It is
hard to tell whether minorities respected or disrespected Canarsians.
Maybe they did respect them until Canarsians hurled racial epithets at
them; we will never know their side. Rieder also does not address why the
black middle-class was trying to get out of the ghetto (rising drug/crime
epidemic). The author, an ethnographer, can only tell what the subjects
believe. Canarsians were not asking deep questions about the breakdown of
the African-American family.
In conclusion, the author writes of a negative community, one that
is unified by the fear of outsiders. He is not sympathetic, but empathetic
to their concerns. The politics of integration sounded like a great idea
to wealthy liberals, but the conservative sway of the middle-class
Canarsians proved that reality is much different from an enlightened
ideal. This book is a must-read for all Political Science students.
CANARSIE: THE JEWS AND ITALIANS OF BROOKLYN AGAINST LIBERALISM. By Jonathon Rieder. (1985)
Reviewed by Shawna Stewart
When one thinks of liberalism, it often means a political state that guarantees everyone's freedom regardless of class, race, or ethnic background. In modern day politics, liberalism is a term that is synonymous with radical change, but less than fifty years ago it was a term that was sought after to insure that the life of the American dream be a realistic quest ending with equality for everyone.
This equality stems from civil rights movements that were meant to guarantee equal rights to minorities throughout the country, often referring to the black population. In addition, it was the beginning of becoming the modern politically correct world we are today, that includes not only race, but class, gender, and ethnic backgrounds as well.
It seems to be a little ironic that while each of these different groups fight for their own recognition in society, they also alienate themselves from those around them that are going through the similar struggle. A common understanding that you fight for "your people" so that they blend into the mix of the "melting pot", but at the same time, this sense of loyalty disregards the groups around you fighting for the same cause. So what ends up is not he melting pot, but a pot of coexisting matter that blends as well as oil and water. This case is illustrated in a town called Canarsie by displaying the emotional and physical response that is generated by the Jewish and Italian Communities in response to black people moving and integrating into their community.
It is important to note that the strong connection to ethnic and political background as well as family history play an important role to the disunity that occurred in cross-racial integration in Canarsie. Jonathon Rieder paints the picture and lays the foundation for why a community that is traditionally welcome to the idea of pursuing the "American Dream" suddenly begins lashing out to a foreign population coming into "their" area.
Canarsie originally was an Italian community with few Irish, German, and British inhabitants, eventually many white collar Jewish families began to move to the community to escape the ghettos in order to provide their children with more opportunities and a richer environment in which to grow up. In the beginning, the two different ethnic groups had to deal with religious differences amongst themselves, but few things lay common with the two groups that enabled them to become a community that would later unite to resist the integration and arrival of the blacks from surrounding neighborhoods- economic status and fear. In regards to economic status, many who came to Canarsie claim they did so to in order to buy homes (22), and to escape the ghettos that now inhabited by low income families. Often referred to as "white flight", the individuals who left surrounding towns to come to Canarsie claim that the low income encouraged such things as prostitution, a drug market, theft and vandalism. Surrounding areas such as Brownsville no longer deemed to be a fit neighborhood to live in. It is at this point, important to note that many of these "new" people moving into these areas were Hispanic, Puerto Rican, and black. Not only was it the income difference that led people to flee from their homes, but it was also the fact that this new population happened to be of different ethnic and racial backgrounds. One Jewish man described it as being "garbage.and then came the nigger kids, hanging out and playing those transistor radios, the rowdies"(21). The element of pure fear is what ignited such emotion and animosity towards those of different ethnic background.
In order to escape the fear and not have to deal with the differences, many Jews moved to Canarsie and formed their own "fenced land". An area that seemed to be indifferent to the changing world around them. In this community, people believed in hard work, close knit families, and moving up in the social world in regards to class. During the 70's this view of their home life began to change as blacks began to move into Canarsie. Since some had already experienced a little of the difference between blacks and whites before moving to Canarsie, they had a preconceived notion of what to expect from the new people moving into their neighborhoods. This notion which could be seen as minor ethnic differences to some, was a total shift in lifestyle and behavior for the Jews and Italians in response to the lower class blacks. Language differences posed a threat as Canarsians claimed that the language used by blacks was vulgar and that "blacks failed to maintain the accepted division of social life=E2=80=A6.and a respectable female sphere of home" (60). Changes in the scenery of Canarsie also made Jews and Italians feel as if they were being alienated from their own home. In the ghettos of Brownsville, vandalism and graffiti began to encompass city subways and buildings. To Canarsians this was not a symbol of expression, but rather one of moralistic character that was seen as defacing property and not being considerate of the landscape around them. They did not want to be burdened with this type of activity when the blacks began to move into Canarsie.
In reality, the changes that were being made to Canarsie by this movement of blacks was not because of racial factors, but more class issues. Since there was this fear and impartiality to change among the white residents, the blame was placed on the race and prejudice emerged. A community that was in a sense united was also very split based upon ethnic differences in the past, but since there was some common ground, it was easier to live together and fight against this "movement" then it was to accept it.
Rieder's title to the book would suggest that the Jews and Italians turned away from a society that enabled them to distinguish themselves and move up the social and economic ladder with the threat of integration. An imperative statement based upon the first two paragraphs of this paper. Is it common in this country that once a group of ethnic minorities gain independence and recognition, they only want to protect it from being taken away from them by ignoring other groups who are fighting for the same cause? Rieder's ideas are one sided and give little prospective into other group's thoughts, but that is precisely the impact that is needed to understand how racism and prejudice works in the first place. It is based upon fear of being viewed as a "nobody" in society. The history and existence of the Jewish and Italian communities shows us that they fought hard to become "somebody" in American, they didn't want that to be taken away from them, while still being able to maintain their own traditions regarding their ethnic views.
CANARSIE does a wonderful job of explaining this type of mentality, while be bias to the writer's views only makes it to be a stronger impact upon the message he is trying to send regarding liberalism and the contradictions that lie within it.