Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North
Thomas J. Sugrue
Random House, 2008
720 pp., $35.00
Reviewed by Paul Harvey
Post-Racial America? Not Yet.
The final few chapters of the book, while consistently strong, flag a bit. Sugrue follows the histories of school reform, welfare rights activism, black power thought, and changing trends of government policy. As in most civil rights histories, the narrative fragments, and the dramatic confrontations of a previous generation (as with, for example, the stories of CORE's assault on segregation in Chicago in the 1940s) give way to the quotidian stories of those who kept the faith even in the face of urban decay and decline through the 1970s and 1980s. But even at the cost of sacrificing some narrative power, this part stays true to Sugrue's basic story of the everyday struggles of unsung activists who empowered and continue to carry on the long history of the civil rights movement in the North.
Sugrue's first book, Origins of the Urban Crisis, is a classic, and this one is as well. Every American historian needs to read it, and so do policymakers. Sugrue counts the cost of the failures of addressing the structural and economic causes of urban decline. Put most simply, black migration after World War II coincided with uncanny precision with the beginnings of deindustrialization, urban decay, and white flight, a story told (with a focus on Detroit) in impressive if painful detail in Sugrue's first book. We see here the results in Sugrue's brief and strikingly powerful portraits of life in the underground economies of black urban America. Formerly thriving shopping centers turn into rows of boarded up buildings and brightly lit liquor stores; struggling welfare recipients—not the "queens" of political propaganda but impoverished women—engage in prostitution to feed their children; young men gather on corners to sling dope and coke; and urban scavengers strip copper and wiring out of every available building and construction site, and bring their proceeds to the junk man.
While Sugrue masterfully unweaves the intricate webs that have created, justified, and sustained racial inequality and segregation in northern, midwestern, and western cities, he tends to underplay the individual and the family. This is consonant with his larger argument. Through this long book, however, there is very little mention, save for a few pages on (and cogent criticisms of) Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous government report on the Negro family, on the relation of family structure and culture on the social symptoms that Sugrue so aptly describes.
This is unfortunate, because one does not have to parrot neoconservative cant on how the misbehavior of the "underclass," rather than a long history of systematically produced inequality, explains the complex of problems in black urban communities, in order to deal seriously with the reality that broken families disproportionately, and devastatingly, hurt children in poorer communities—and that this problem has worsened markedly even since the days of the Moynihan controversy. Sugrue critiques the "masculinist" ethos both of the Moynihanian "tangle of pathology" thesis as well as the allegedly radical Black Panthers (whose vaunted service programs, Sugrue points out, simply carried on longstanding grassroots activism within black communities). But the emphasis on the sexual politics of the era, while valuable, understates realities of black family life that must be addressed.
This book is full of hope, triumph, and overcoming. It is also realistic about the stagnation of progress for too many African Americans born into an urban caste system that, most recently, has been best dramatized by the late and much lamented television series The Wire. Even more than this book, The Wire leaves one with a sense of the relationship of family and social catastrophes in the specific context of Baltimore. Sugrue's chapter on the decline of public education in Detroit, and the consequences for one family he follows, brought tears to my eyes, just as did the fictional (but all too real) character of Duquan ("Dukie") on The Wire, a young man of tremendous intelligence but without any means to find his way to "the other world." Had he a different family—or rather, a family at all—Duquan just might have gotten out. In his story, the structural and the personal engage in a brutal interplay, and my only real critique of Sugrue is that he might have devoted more attention to the personal side of this equation.
Read this book. Then, get busy, for freedom remains a constant struggle and there's plenty for everybody to do.
Paul Harvey runs the blog Religion in American History, at http://usreligion.blogspot.com
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