Book Reviews

Wrong on Race

Why Barack Obama shouldn't listen to Tom Sugrue.

By Richard Kahlenberg

Tagged Civil RightsHistory

Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North By
Thomas J. Sugrue • Random House • 2008 • 688
pages • $35

Sweet Land of Liberty has all the markings of a Big Book. The author, Thomas Sugrue, is a Bancroft Prize-winning Ivy League professor, “one of the most brilliant historians of his generation,” according to the book jacket. He’s a public intellectual to boot, someone who ventures beyond the narrow confines of historical journals to write for mainstream outlets like The Washington Post and The Nation. The book’s publisher, Random House, is accustomed to producing blockbusters. And the topic–the Northern Civil Rights movement–is a fascinating one, much more complex and multidimensional than the essentially good-versus-evil story of the far more chronicled and genuinely heroic Southern Civil Rights movement.

The Southern movement, led by Martin Luther King Jr., appealed to religious sentiments about the humanity of all God’s children, Gandhian notions of nonviolence, the need for coalition building and the desirability of racial integration, and the universal value of nondiscrimination. It sought to vindicate American values, outlined in the Declaration of Independence, not challenge them. The Northern movement, by contrast, raises a much more complex set of issues. Like the Southern movement, it had the noble goal of bringing full citizenship to black Americans. But certain factions within the movement chose far more controversial means, including the embrace of Black Power and black separatism; racial preferences and reparations; and violence and rioting as a political tool. Likewise, because the Northern struggle for black freedom did not center around the need to demolish Jim Crow laws, it quickly intersected with larger questions of class inequality, as J. Anthony Lukas chronicled in his 1985 book Common Ground, a stunning account of the Boston busing crisis of the 1970s.

Over the past few decades, a number of liberal pro-Civil Rights writers have concluded that the Northern Civil Rights movement took some wrong turns along the way, unnecessarily alienating working-class whites who shared common interests with blacks. When the movement said blacks should receive preferential treatment in employment, government contracting, and college admissions, many working-class whites, who were struggling economically themselves, felt betrayed. When Coleman Young ran for mayor of Detroit and told blacks he was “a Negro first and a Democrat second,” he embraced a brand of identity politics that in turn reinforced a white form of identity politics and helped, over the years, to deliver large majorities to Republican candidates. Writers who raised these concerns included not only Lukas, but journalists and political analysts such as Thomas and Mary Edsall, Jim Sleeper, and Stanley Greenberg. (It is also a viewpoint I have espoused, including in my biography of union leader Albert Shanker, which Sugrue reviewed in The Nation in 2007.)

Sugrue sets out to challenge this interpretation. “Many observers drew a sharp distinction between integration and separation, between nonviolence and self-defense,” he writes. “But for a growing number of Northern activists, the two impulses were never so sharply distinct. They existed in creative tension as two prongs of a strategy for black freedom, as a growing number of activists worked for equality but adopted increasingly militant strategies and rhetoric.” Sugrue sees the Northern Civil Rights movement’s new tactics as neither better nor worse than the South’s, just different. The Black Power movement’s embrace of black identity and “community control” of de facto segregated schools was not an unfortunate repudiation of King’s emphasis on school integration, but rather a complementary effort to advance blacks through new means. The use of racial preferences in the hiring, promotion, and firing of employees, the awarding of government contracts, and the admission of students to universities was not a departure from fundamental Civil Rights principles, but merely a new means to achieving black empowerment. Violent Northern riots were not a misguided rejection of King’s commitment to nonviolent protest; they were political “uprisings” and forms of “self-defense” that inspired important concessions from white business interests. Taken together, the pursuit of racial preferences, violent tactics, and black separatism did not spark a white political backlash, Sugrue argues, because most Northern and Southern whites were fundamentally hostile to blacks to begin with and were not susceptible to moral suasion.

The debate over the interpretation of this time period is not merely academic. The lessons will directly inform social policy in the new administration. America’s first black president, Barack Obama, has feet in both camps, and whether he takes instruction from Lukas and Sleeper on the one hand, or Sugrue and like-minded critics on the other, will be profoundly important in the coming years. And while Sugrue is adept and generally accurate with his history, the lessons he draws from it–particularly on still-relevant questions like inner-city education and affirmative action–are dangerously wrong.

In more than 500 pages of text, Sweet Land of Liberty provides a sweeping narrative of the Northern Civil Rights battles over housing, education, and employment, from the 1920s to today. It takes up efforts to desegregate the defense industry in the 1940s; the idealistic effort to create integrated housing in the 1950s; the urban riots of the 1960s; the effort to desegregate schools, create a right to welfare, and establish affirmative action programs in the 1970s; and the backlash against those very sets of policies in subsequent decades.

Sugrue’s central thesis is that white racism and resistance to Civil Rights extended far beyond the American South. He opens the book with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s observation, “The racial issue we confront in America is not a sectional but a national problem.” In page after page, Sugrue powerfully reminds us that when blacks moved from the South to what they believed would be the “sweet land of liberty,” they were met with pervasive and often violent Northern white racism. Particularly virulent was obstinate white resistance to housing integration, most notably in the paradigmatic post-World War II housing development, Levittown, Pennsylvania, where William Levitt flatly refused to sell to blacks. During this era, federally backed mortgage guidelines indicated that a single black family could render a neighborhood “actuarially unsound.” Today, Sugrue observes, the 15 most segregated metropolitan areas are in the Northeast and Midwest, and the five states with the highest rates of school segregation lie outside the South. Clearly, the blanket claim of Northern whites to racial innocence is wholly unsupported.

As Northern whites resisted living near blacks, they also balked at sending their children to integrated schools. If there was massive white resistance to Brown vs. Board of Education in the South, Northerners were hardly more accommodating. Sugrue rightly devotes most of a chapter to the seminal 1974 case Milliken vs. Bradley, in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a district court order to integrate Detroit schools with 53 surrounding suburbs. Milliken was a critical setback, in part, as Sugrue notes, because it allowed affluent whites an escape hatch from integration by moving to the suburbs, pushing low-income whites to the forefront of school integration. Although whites often framed their opposition to integration around the distance required to transport their children, Civil Rights activist Julian Bond acerbically noted, “It’s not the bus, it’s us.”

Frustrated with white resistance to school integration, it is understandable that many blacks, particularly in the North, shifted to a new idea: “community control” of schools. Many supporters questioned what they saw as the insulting premise of school integration. One activist commented, “I don’t believe that just because my kids are sitting next to some old white kids they’re going to learn.”

Ground Zero for “community control” was the 1967 experiment in Brooklyn New York’s ghetto of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. (The effort was a turning point for the American Civil Rights movement, yet Sugrue gives the episode astonishingly short shrift.) New York City’s community control movement was backed by a coalition of upper-crust whites and Black Power advocates, who systematically upended the central principles of American liberalism and the mainstream Civil Rights movement. Public schools had always held a cherished place among liberals as institutions providing the glue to hold a diverse society together, but Black Power advocates said ghetto schools should teach black pride. Malcolm X devotee Herman Ferguson called for black-controlled schools that would pledge alliance to the “red, black, and green flag,” the colors of Africa, rather than the red, white, and blue. He argued that only black teachers should teach black history. Some saw a strange resonance with the argument of white segregationists, who said in earlier years that only black teachers “understood the peculiarities of the race.”

All hell broke loose in May 1968, when the community control school board in Ocean Hill-Brownsville summarily fired eighteen white unionized educators. The liberal teachers union, led by Albert Shanker, who had marched with King in Selma and sent teachers to Freedom Schools in the South, went on a series of strikes for 36 days. At the time, it was the longest and largest teachers’ strike in American history. Black Power activists further discredited themselves when they embraced egregious anti-Semitism toward Shanker and the heavily Jewish teachers’ union. They praised a student’s poem that began, “Hey, Jew boy, with that yarmulke on your head/You pale-faced Jew boy–I wish you were dead.”

What were liberals to do? They knew that it was wrong when white people fired black people without cause, and they knew it was wrong when right-wing business leaders attacked unionized employees. But what was one to think when blacks fired whites and the assault on labor came from the left?

Most New York City liberals, black and white, sided with the Black Power community control activists. But there were exceptions, including A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Randolph was a bastion of the movement, according to Sugrue “the best-connected and best-known man in black America” when he successfully pressured FDR to end segregation in American defense industries in 1941. In Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Randolph argued that no one should be fired by race; it didn’t matter who was doing the firing. He was joined by Bayard Rustin, a close aide to King, who organized the 1963 March on Washington and criticized community control as “the spiritual descendant of states’ rights.”

As Sugrue observes, the community control effort in New York City and other places yielded no real gains in student achievement, nor was it particularly popular among rank-and-file blacks. “The problem was not one of governance, it was one of resources,” he concludes. Sugrue draws a similar conclusion from efforts to integrate schools by race: Verda Bradley, the plaintiffs’ mother in the Milliken case, “did not believe that association with white students would help children like Ronald and Richard overcome their educational or ‘cultural’ deficiencies.” Instead, she says, “we were upset because they weren’t getting as many materials as some other schools.” Sugrue agrees heartily.

This seems like a plausible lesson to draw from the community control and school integration efforts, but it’s not empirically sound. In the 1977 Milliken II case, which Sugrue fails to mention, the Supreme Court ordered substantially extra funding for Detroit schools as an answer to the failure to integrate in Milliken I. But as UCLA’s Gary Orfield has noted, the funding for parent involvement programs, special reading initiatives, better teacher training, and the like yielded no significant benefits. Other cities–like Washington, D.C. and Newark, New Jersey–have outspent their suburban counterparts, with little positive results to show for it.

What are we to make of these findings? That money doesn’t matter in education, or that blacks need to sit next to whites in order to learn? Neither. Instead, a long line of research shows that while money matters a great deal in education, people matter more, and that poor kids of all colors do better in middle-class environments. Sugrue is right to focus on “resources,” but he construes the term too narrowly as per-pupil funding. Having classmates who have big dreams, value academic achievement, and don’t disrupt class is an important “resource.” So is having a cadre of parents in the school community who volunteer in class and know how to hold school officials accountable. So are excellent teachers, many of whom won’t teach in high-poverty schools because they believe they won’t get much parental support and are worried about their physical safety. For all these reasons and others, separate schools for rich and poor, even when equally funded, are inherently unequal. Detroit schools are inferior not because they have “too many” black students but because they have extreme concentrations of poverty. While black students saw no academic gains in Boston when they integrated with poor and working-class whites, low-income students given the chance to live in and attend schools in affluent white suburbs of Chicago under the Gautreaux program saw substantial gains.

The reality of economic class is also important to understanding the battles Sugrue describes over affirmative action in higher education and employment. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement faced a crossroads: With the passage of legislation to outlaw future discrimination in employment and education, what should be done to remedy the legacy of centuries of brutal discrimination against blacks? The issue split the Civil Rights community. Of course, Black Power advocates had no qualms violating the principle of nondiscrimination when it favored blacks, but many mainstream leaders also made strong arguments that given the history of this country, it was necessary to temporarily discriminate in favor of blacks to set things right. As early as 1963, Sugrue notes, Whitney Young of the Urban League began pushing for reparations or “compensatory” programs to remedy the nation’s history of discrimination. He called for a “Marshall Plan for the Negro” and the hiring of “Negroes because they are Negroes.”

Oddly, Sugrue fails to mention the alternative view, espoused not only by Randolph and Rustin, but by King himself. King struggled with the argument advanced by Whitney Young and others, but he ultimately rejected it. In his 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait (and in 1967 testimony before the Kerner Commission), King called for “compensatory consideration,” noting, “if a man is entered at the starting line in a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow runner.” But instead of calling for a special program for blacks, as Young had, King called for a color-blind Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged: “While Negroes form the vast majority of America’s disadvantaged, there are millions of white poor who would also benefit from such a bill.” King continued, “It is a simple matter of justice that America, in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness, should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor.” King knew that class-based approaches would be colorblind but not blind to history; that race-specific programs would disrupt the progressive coalition with whites; and that on their merits, America needed a broader Poor People’s Campaign to root out inequality. (By contrast, the Urban League had long called for an alliance between blacks and white employers and opposed unionism.)

Sugrue doesn’t grapple with King’s argument–he simply ignores it, and in doing so ignores a crucial distinction among Northern white critics of the movement. What Sugrue fails to grasp is that there was a sizable subset of whites–think of New York City teachers who were strong supporters of King–who felt betrayed when Black Power activists called for hiring and firing based on race, whether in schools or offices. Nowhere does Sugrue distinguish between those Northern whites who were hostile to black advancement generally and those who objected to changing the rules about nondiscrimination. Nowhere does he distinguish between those whites who were offended by black separatists and those whites who never wanted integration in the first place. And yet when we consider the legacy of the Civil Rights struggles, it is absolutely essential that we keep such distinctions in mind.

Barack Obama’s presidency raises a number of interesting questions for Sugrue and others who take his view of the Northern Civil Rights movement. Clearly, Obama does not agree with the type of proposition advanced by Sugrue, namely that the political costs of embracing Black Power are negligible. Obama’s association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright was the single biggest threat to his campaign, and Obama wisely distanced himself from his former mentor. Indeed, had Obama taken Sugrue’s racial pessimism to heart, he never would have contemplated running for President at all. One has to wonder what Sugrue, who spends 500 pages minimizing the difference between Southern and Northern white attitudes, makes of the fact that John McCain trounced Obama among Southern whites by 38 percentage points but ran roughly even among whites in the rest of the country.

If Obama was right to ignore the type of racial pessimism that pervades Sweet Land of Liberty, he is also smart to reject Sugrue’s undiluted support for racial preference programs. The issue is likely to resurface next year, when the Supreme Court may consider a challenge by conservatives to the use of race in admissions at the University of Texas at Austin. Whereas Sugrue exhibits no concerns about racial preferences, Obama has been torn. During the campaign, he generally supported race-based affirmative action, but he also suggested that his own economically privileged daughters do not deserve affirmative action preferences, and that low-income whites do. In practice, this is an important concession, because 86 percent of blacks at selective universities currently come from middle- or upper-class backgrounds.

Racial preferences as a remedy to discrimination have always been unpopular, but the strategy is likely to be particularly troublesome in the current political environment. According to a January 2009 Washington Post-ABC poll, the percentage of Americans saying racism is a “big problem” stands at just 26 percent, down an astounding 28 percentage points from 1996. Obama’s election does not usher in a “post-racial” nirvana, as Jabari Asim has written, “but it exposes the fallacy of referring to all black Americans as particularly oppressed.” Moreover, the economic meltdown is likely to make affirmative action an even tougher sell than usual, as economically insecure whites may be in no mood to tolerate using race as a factor in deciding who gets ahead.

The trick for Obama will be to find a way forward that promotes racial and economic justice while simultaneously advancing his winning campaign theme of uniting Americans across racial and political lines. Obama would do well to take a page from King and transition from race-based preferences to class-based ones in a way that is fair to disadvantaged minorities. That means affirmative action based not just on income but also wealth and concentrated poverty. In the epilogue, Sugrue correctly points out that because of our history of slavery and segregation, the black/white wealth gap is much greater than the income gap. And he notes that because of ongoing housing segregation, middle-income blacks are more likely to live near–and attend schools with–the poor than are middle-class whites. A sophisticated program of affirmative action for economically disadvantaged students would surely want to incorporate considerations of wealth and neighborhood poverty, both as a matter of fairness and as a way of increasing the racial dividend of class-based affirmative action. African-American voters may be willing to give America’s first black President the leeway necessary to make this long overdue change in policy.

On the question of school integration, Obama is also something of an open book. In his legendary race speech in Philadelphia, Obama correctly declared that “segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown vs. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.” On the other hand, when it comes to education policy, Obama has tended to emphasize the need to improve low-income schools through programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provide extra resources in a segregated setting. John Edwards, by contrast, proposed giving middle-class suburban schools a financial incentive to accept reasonable numbers of low-income transfer students currently trapped in failing urban schools. Likewise, whereas Obama has emphasized the need for more charter schools (many of which are segregated), Edwards championed doubling magnet school funding to promote integration. Obama may have shied away from the perceived political fallout of advocating “busing,” but in today’s economy, where districts are strapped for cash, providing financial incentives for voluntarily recruiting low-income students may prove especially popular. The empirical evidence has long suggested that trying to equalize separate schools for rich and poor is an exercise in frustration. Obama, who himself grew up in–and benefited from–integrated family and school environments is ideally suited to reject the prevailing consensus among conservative whites and nationalistic blacks that integration is an obsolete ideal.

The history of the Northern Civil Rights movement suggests that those who pushed hard for nondiscrimination coupled with class-based approaches–Randolph, Rustin, and King–yielded the most enduring results. Thomas Sugrue, a smart academic, misses this profound lesson. One hopes and expects the new professor in the White House will do better.


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Richard Kahlenberg a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and the author or editor of 17 books, is writing a book on housing segregation.

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