Racial Romanticism

Civil rights history does not divide neatly into pre-1968 light and post-1968 darkness. A response to Richard Kahlenberg.

By Thomas J. Sugrue

Tagged Civil RightsHistory

In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama writes of “the psychodrama of the baby-boom generation” with its “old grudges and revenge plots.” A case in point: A generation ago, a group of mostly white, boomer journalists and intellectuals published a series of influential books and articles on the “failure” of civil rights politics. Their accounts began with an idealized story of the Southern civil rights movement, focusing on the period from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, which they contrasted starkly to the supposed excesses of the late 1960s: a divisive racial politics that played out mostly in the North, directed by black radicals and enabled by white leftists who together alienated the white “silent majority,” weakened the Democratic Party, and thwarted Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of an integrated America. In this account, the North is the spoiler in an otherwise uplifting story of racial redemption.

This version of history took root in the conservative soil of the 1980s and 1990s and had a clear political purpose: to discredit controversial race-conscious programs, including affirmative action, school desegregation, and minority voting districts, as a betrayal of “the movement.” To make that argument required a selective–and narrow–reading of civil rights history. Like most didactic narratives, it rested on simple binaries: integrationism versus separationism, nonviolence versus violence, Martin versus Malcolm. Mainstream historians have largely moved beyond such reductionism, and yet it is difficult to read Richard Kahlenberg’s review of my book Sweet Land of Liberty without feeling sucked into that old boomer psychodrama once again [“Wrong on Race,” Issue #12].

Spanning the long period from the 1920s to the 1990s, Sweet Land of Liberty gives voice to the diverse activists who joined the struggle for racial equality, tries to present their views evenhandedly, and does not shy away from controversial issues, including the domestic impact of the cold war, black power, and welfare rights. Yet Kahlenberg prefers to view civil rights in the North through a pinhole, from the vantage point of angry ex-leftists like New York teacher unionist Albert Shanker and a few blocks in Brooklyn. In this view, a handful of black nationalists, spouting anti-Semitic slogans and advocating affirmative action, destroyed liberalism.

To support his argument, Kahlenberg restates the widely discredited backlash thesis, namely that “the Northern civil rights movement took some wrong turns along the way, unnecessarily alienating working-class whites who shared common interests with blacks.” Yes, activists sometimes took wrong turns, like the strange alliance between some leading black power activists and the Nixon Administration that I describe in Sweet Land of Liberty. And yes, black radicals sometimes alienated whites, with high political costs, including the rise of a destructive law-and-order politics in the late 1960s.

But Kahlenberg’s assumption that an interracial working-class movement was just around the corner in 1968–or at any other point in the twentieth century, for that matter–is wishful thinking. The persistence of racial inequality in the last 40 years of the twentieth century was not the result of the betrayal of a “subset of whites” who would have been integrationists had it not been for Sonny Carson. It was the result of a long history of public policies, deindustrialization, and systematic disinvestment from black communities, persistent segregation in housing and education, discriminatory practices by employers and unions, and long-standing racial gaps in wealth, health, and income.

A whole generation of urban and political historians has dismantled the backlash thesis. Along with my first book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, studies of Baltimore, Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Cleveland, Gary, Los Angeles, Newark, Oakland, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Seattle, among other cities, document the depth of white racism in Northern and western metropolitan areas and the fragility of the New Deal coalition well before the 1960s. Only a minority of Northern whites ever supported civil rights (at King’s peak of popularity in 1964, a majority of Northern whites believed that civil rights activists were pushing too far, too fast). Whites fought black incursion into their neighborhoods, fled to suburbs, and opposed school desegregation long before the Black Panthers shouted “off the pigs” or Stokely Carmichael mounted his soapbox.

The consequence is that even in the era of Barack Obama, Northern metropolitan areas remain highly segregated by race, if less so than at mid-century. Schools have resegregated. The weight of the past bears heavily on the present.

What racial progress there has been in the post-1960s period was primarily the result of public policy interventions, including affirmative action. And here is where Kahlenberg and I really clash. He is primarily interested in discrediting racial preferences by any means necessary–and he deploys some slippery rhetoric to do so, most notably by calling affirmative action plans “quotas” (quotas haven’t been permitted since the 1978 Bakke decision) and conflating affirmative action with black power (even though hardly any black power activists actually supported affirmative action). My task is not to discredit affirmative action or to offer a brief for it, but rather to explain its origins and impact.

Affirmative action was never as far-reaching as its critics feared or as its supporters hoped. It certainly alienated some whites (though even here, the data are not straightforward–white support for racial preferences varied depending on how survey researchers phrased the question). Black enrollment in institutions of higher education skyrocketed in the 1970s, when colleges and universities voluntarily adopted affirmative action programs. The ranks of black professionals grew accordingly. Blacks made their biggest gains in public and government-contracted employment, where affirmative action was the strongest. That said, it was not a panacea for the problems of racial inequality. And it is even less so today, after a generation of court decisions and state referenda have narrowed its scope even further.

Kahlenberg’s reading of the black freedom struggle is equally flawed. He relies on a clichéd history of civil rights that bears little resemblance to recent scholarship on the South and the North, and he offers a timeless, ahistorical definition of civil rights that is belied by actual history. For Kahlenberg, the reality of civil rights activism was its universalism and its effort to “vindicate American values…not [to] challenge them.” But for those marching for civil rights both North and South–as well as their opponents–the civil rights struggle was dangerous, transgressive, and sometimes revolutionary.

Kahlenberg’s narrow reading of civil rights history leads him, most egregiously, to distort Martin Luther King Jr’s politics. To depict King, posthumously, as a “colorblind” opponent of affirmative action is simply wrong. From 1964 until his death, King consistently supported compensatory programs. Especially after he turned his attention northward, King called for a “radical revolution of values,” and said, “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Unfortunately, Kahlenberg does not appear to have dipped even superficially into the scores of books and articles on black activism that complicate his framework and shape my interpretation of civil rights in the North. One consistent theme in this work is the co-existence of racial separatism and self-defense with nonviolent strategies. Kahlenberg can’t wish away this history–even if it undermines his romantic understanding of the civil rights movement.

His either/or framework cannot account for the alliances between black separatists and civil rights advocates, from the Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work boycotts of discriminatory shopkeepers in the 1930s to A. Philip Randolph’s insistence that the World War II March on Washington Movement remain all black. The 1966 “Freedom Budget for All Americans,” an ambitious interracial public works and antipoverty program coordinated by Bayard Rustin, won the ringing endorsement of the Urban League, the NAACP, King, some liberal trade unions, and, yes, the black power advocates at SNCC and CORE.

What became crystal clear to me in researching the Northern civil rights struggle is that most activists and ordinary blacks saw nonviolence and moral suasion as only one strategy, which they readily jettisoned when it did not seem to be working. Northern activists were improvisational with their strategies and ideologically inconsistent. They boycotted and litigated, they engaged in nonviolent protests, and they took to the streets in more aggressive demonstrations. They worked through the political system, trying to use it, as had white immigrants, for group empowerment. And they experimented–especially in the realm of education–advocating integration, but when it seemed to be failing, trying out community control, Afrocentric education, and charter schools. I have long been an advocate of integrated education, but it would be irresponsible of me as a historian to marginalize those many black voices, from W.E.B. DuBois to Herman Ferguson, who thought otherwise.

King understood that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor.” Some black activists took that lesson in directions that King understood but did not condone: They engaged in acts of disruption and violence that forced white civic leaders to heed black demands. Of course, militant protest and rioting had unintended, often damaging consequences. Like Kahlenberg, I wish it were otherwise. But my task as a historian is to report what actually happened.

Finally, Kahlenberg accuses Sweet Land of Liberty of displaying a “racial pessimism” so deep that had Barack Obama taken it to heart, “he would never have contemplated running for president at all.” This misrepresents the book, not to mention Obama’s career. Like many activists in the Northern freedom struggle, Obama started out as a community organizer precisely because he hoped to solve the persistent problems of racial and economic inequality, not because he thought that we had overcome. Sweet Land of Liberty offers an unsentimental assessment of the progress we have made (the expansion of opportunity in higher education, the rise in the number of black elected officials, and the emergence of a sizeable black middle class) but also the persistence of inequality (highly racially segregated housing markets, separate and unequal schools, the shockingly large gap in household wealth between blacks and whites, and the persistence of huge racial disparities in poverty, unemployment, incarceration, and mortality).

It is tempting, in the aftermath of the election of America’s first African American president, to dismiss the history of the black freedom struggle as “dangerous” or discount realistic appraisals of racial progress as unduly pessimistic. We should celebrate the extraordinary gains of the last century–but remember that the struggle was hard fought, it exacted high costs, and that it remains unfinished. Sanitizing that past or boiling down history to a set of politically expedient polemics is neither good scholarship nor good politics. To distort the past inevitably distorts the present.


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Thomas J. Sugrue is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University. His most recent book is These United States: A Nation in the Making, 1890 to the Present, with Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore.

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