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Reviewed by Paul Harvey

Post-Racial America? Not Yet.

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

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.

There are few urban myths more deeply rooted than this one, but it is fatuous. As Sugrue systematically shows, northern segregation was anything but an accident of market-based individual choice, but was instead deliberately fostered through discriminatory policies in banking, mortgage, "urban renewal," and education. And while southern segregation could be dramatically confronted through lunch counter sit-ins and the like, it proved far more difficult to challenge real-estate redlining, federal home loan guarantees that virtually mandated a racially segregated suburbia, and neighborhood schools that defended white racial privilege as a democratic right.

Sugrue returns throughout the book to the systemic roots of racial and economic inequality, and the deep interconnections between the two. Before the 1950s, a powerful alliance of religious idealists (including remarkable individuals such as Anna Arnold Hedgeman, James Farmer, and the founders of the Congress of Racial Equality and other civil rights groups) and secular activists (usually Socialist) empowered a variety of movements that simultaneously attacked racial and economic inequality. In their journey from "uplift" to "militancy," they brought struggles for equality to a national audience and provided a model for a future generation of southern civil rights protestors to follow. Religious activists played a far more central part of the struggle in the North than most understand. As a result, religious figures people this work to a degree that surprised even me. The very first chapter, for example, a beautifully rendered mini-biography of Anna Arnold Hedgeman, is alone worth the price of the book. The contrast with another recent book of note, Glenda Gilmore's Defying Dixie, is striking, for Gilmore's story of the long history of the southern civil rights movement excludes religious figures almost entirely, focusing instead on black secular radicals. Thus, the historiography of religion in civil rights scholarship has shifted dramatically, as evidenced by a comparison of these two landmark works.

Yet this religious-left alliance did not, and could not, survive the pervasive anti-communism of the post World War II years; nor could it match up with the powerful psychological arguments put forward in Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma and by social psychologists who discovered that demonstrations with black dolls worked even in arguments presented to the Supreme Court.

Sugrue argues that while "Depression era activists situated racial inequality in a larger context of power relationships and economic inequality," postwar social scientists "saw prejudice as the manifestation of psychological or emotional deficiencies." Social scientists also focused on black internal pathologies deriving from psychological responses to white racism. Religious leaders of the time, Sugrue points out, made their peace with the rising emphasis on psychology, for "psychology easily segued into spirituality." Thus, while a previous generation stressed economics, the liberals of the post-war era focused on personal relations, through such feel-good exercises as Brotherhood Sundays and race relations seminars. We see here, of course, the roots of the current corporate industry of "diversity training," based on the presumption that group therapy will solve structural inequalities.

Sugrue's sympathies throughout lie with those who understood the economic roots of racial inequality. For that reason, unlike many authors who discuss black power and the social movements of the 1960s, Sugrue finds these approaches wanting as well. The emphasis on community control and autonomy overtook a previous thrust towards large scale, integrationist, and regionwide solutions to racial inequality. Johnson's War on Poverty, with its Community Action Programs, furthered a trend towards the devolution of national anti-poverty programs to local community and nonprofit organizations. The Black Power cries for racial pride and black capitalism (shared by members of the Nixon Administration, who knew economic conservative thought when they saw it) furthered this kind of localism, and damped down a previous generation's push towards addressing the causes and consequences of systemically produced inequality.

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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