In Search Of Tough Liberals In The Age Of Trump: Remembering Al Shanker

The next author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, and author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2007). You can find the other posts in this series here.

I met Albert Shanker in September 1995, just a year and a half before his untimely death.  I made an appointment to interview him for a book I was writing on affirmative action policies in college admissions.  My father, who taught high school, used to clip Shanker’s columns in the Sunday New York Times and share them with me.  So I was excited to meet the man whose writing on education, labor, civil rights and democracy spoke to me so profoundly.

Shanker cut an imposing figure.  He was 6’4” with a deep voice and his office at the American Federation of Teachers had an impressive view of the Capitol.  He wasn’t one for small talk so we got right down to business.  On the issue of affirmative action, I strongly identified with Shanker’s position – wanting to find a way to remedy our nation’s egregious history of racial discrimination but simultaneously wanting to avoid a backlash from working-class whites, who also had a rightful claim to special consideration that racial preferences failed to acknowledge.

As a labor leader, Shanker knew that employers try to divide and conquer by pitting working-class people of different races against one another.  So he backed efforts to give a leg up to economically disadvantaged students of all races, a disproportionate share of whom are African American and Latino.

Explicit racial preferences, he had noted years earlier, would impel “millions of white, working-class ‘ethnics’ as well as middle-class whites, to move over to the Republican line.”  Giving a preference to economically needy people of all races, by contrast, would remind working-class whites, African Americans and Latinos of their shared interests.  By 1995, many others labor leaders agreed with Shanker’s position on affirmative action, but few were willing to say so publicly, Shanker suggested.  “I may be the only voice in labor circles today”  he said, who had the courage to advocate affirmative action based on class rather than race. 

Shanker told me his touchstone on affirmative action was the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who argued, “Any preferential approach postulated along racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual lines will only disrupt a multicultural society and lead to a backlash. However, special treatment can be provided to those who have been exploited or denied opportunities if solutions are predicated along class lines, precisely because all religious, ethnic, and racial groups have a depressed class who would benefit.”  Shanker said Rustin had been a very close friend who “knew exactly what it was all about.”

During the interview, I was bowled over by Shanker’s incisive thinking, his wit, and his passion for finding a fair solution, even if it broke with liberal orthodoxy.  I was so taken by Shanker’s worldview – pro-civil rights, pro-public schools, pro-democracy -- that I would later spend seven years writing a biography, Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy.

Now, two decades after Shanker’s death, and a decade after publication of Tough Liberal, I miss him and his worldview more than ever.  Democrats have done a great job of being the party of inclusion – of women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, religious minorities – which is all to be celebrated.  But in recent years, they have done a terrible job of communicating with lower-middle class whites, who have the impression that they are not welcome and indeed are disdained.

Donald Trump ran an unconscionable campaign of racial, ethnic and religious resentment to appeal to these voters but it worked in part because progressives have too often framed policies, such as affirmative action, in a way that does not speak to the condition of struggling whites.  In 2016, the alienation of this constituency had truly disastrous consequences, most notably for people of color and women. 

And yet, liberalism often continues to exclude lower-income whites from the list of those who deserve special support.  Just this month, at Prince William High School, in Virginia, well-meaning progressive students included a series of posters to celebrate diversity and be inclusive of marginalized communities.  “As one, we are immigrants.  As one, we are Latino.  As one, we are Asian.  As one, we are Muslim.  As one, we are LGBTQ.  As one, we are women.”  This set of sentiments is wholly appropriate at a time when all of these groups feel legitimately threatened by their own president.  But the list was also incomplete.  Only later, after some backlash, did students add the slogan that Al Shanker knew so well was needed:  “As one, we are American.”

Teaching children of all different backgrounds what they have in common as Americans, Shanker believed, was a central purpose of public education.  “Americans have always seen public schools as places where children from various groups would learn to live together and value each other and where they would become acquainted with the common civic culture.”

The failure to be inclusive not only of minorities but also struggling whites has paved the way for the unthinkable:  a president who threatens virtually everything that Al Shanker, and millions of people of good will, hold dear – public education, free trade unions, and democratic institutions.  Shanker would have despised Donald Trump’s authoritarian instincts, his support of a Russian dictator, his failure to recognize public education and free trade unions as critical to American democracy.  But Shanker wouldn’t have just denounced Trump.  He would have been busy sketching out plans to reach out to tolerant working-class Trump supporters (some of whom voted for Barack Obama), to shape policies that include them, along with other critical Democratic constituencies, in a powerful coalition for democracy.