Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Reviewed by Paul Harvey

Post-Racial America? Not Yet.

Why the history of the black "freedom struggle" remains all too relevant today.

icon1 of 3view all

In a brief interval between college and graduate school, I worked as a canvasser and community organizer in some poorer neighborhoods in the Bay Area, east of San Francisco. My grandfather, an Oklahoma preacher, had worked there during World War II, part of a floodtide of southern migration to industrial jobs. By the time I arrived in the 1980s, however, a largely black working-class population sat in deteriorating neighborhoods, poisoned by environmental contamination from the local Chevron plant and frightened by urban decay and drug-related violence. I accomplished little other than justly earning distrustful looks from embattled longtime residents who were, doubtless, baffled by my own stunning naiveté. 

Around that same time, Barack Obama moved to Chicago, also to work as a community organizer. Many Americans in recent days have wondered what community organizers like Obama do. One answer: they do a lot of good, but they often leave the work frustrated. Obama, for example, produced a lyrical memoir partly out of his experience, including a trenchant critique of the limitations of the community organizing model. As for my own experience: I turned tail, took off for graduate school, and since have produced little-noted academic books. I have no plans to run for president—even of my local university's Faculty Senate.

Both Obama and I would have benefited if, through some magic of time travel, we could have read Thomas J. Sugrue's Sweet Land of Liberty before we set out on our ambiguously defined quests. With telling detail and crystalline prose, Sugrue has explained the rise, course of, and difficulties inherent in the freedom struggles of black Americans in the North. Sugrue's stellar work follows the historical trend of examining the "long history of the civil rights movement," in his case starting with Anna Arnold Hedgeman's remarkable life in the earlier 20th century to Sugrue's own interracial neighborhood of Mt. Airy, Philadelphia in the present day. Along the way we meet a cast of characters that puts August Wilson to shame.

Sugrue's cogently argued and crisply written narrative combines deep research with wonderful storytelling and excellent analysis. Few books so skillfully combine the narrative with the analytical. For that reason, as I will elaborate below, I wish he had devoted more attention to the individual to complement his peerless analysis of the structural. If the urban crisis is systemic, it is also played out at personal and individual levels, and to address one without the other may be naïve in itself.

Sweet Land of Liberty critiques two models by which civil rights movements have operated in 20th-century America. The first, based on psychological and therapeutic models of espousing human equality and enshrined in Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, informed my younger idealism and continues to be the dominant model by which whites think about the term "civil rights." But it made little sense to the residents of Richmond, California whom I was ostensibly trying to organize. They needed jobs, community investment, and better schools, not sermons about overcoming. The second, based on local programs of "community action" derived in part from Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals and in part from one well-publicized program in Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, inspired Barack Obama's youthful venture.

Like my own, Obama's community organizing experience taught him that systemic and structural problems in urban America defeated nostrums derived from the social gospel, from "can't-we-all-get-along" pleadings, and from Alinsky's faith that organizing to fight very local issues (garbage pickup, unkempt alleys, and the like) would inspire community uprisings on larger issues. Obama actually rediscovered the lesson that Bayard Rustin tried to teach in the 1960s—that it was time to move "from protest to politics," because politically created problems could only be solved with political solutions. A previous generation, trained by the rigors of the Depression, understood that. But Americans of a later era forgot it, and Americans since the 1960s have actively resisted understanding the painful lessons of how racial inequality has been perpetuated deliberately by the same policies that subsidize a comfortable white suburban life.

In tracing the long history of the civil rights movement in the North, Sugrue hammers home a few key themes. First, racial segregation in the North was both highly visible and at the same time "invisible." In the present day, the fifteen most racially segregated metropolitan areas in the United States are in the Northeast and Midwest, while the five states with the most segregated schools are New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, and California. Racial segregation is painfully visible. Yet, the North did not have a tradition of deliberate, southern-style Jim Crow segregation. Thus, northern segregation, real as it was, appeared to most whites as "natural," an inevitable outcome of the aggregate of individual decisions, of "choice." It was invisible because whites could pretend that it was not constructed.

icon1 of 3view all

Most ReadMost Shared