Thomas Sugrue responds to criticism of his book, citing the myth of the white backlash

Historians in the News

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....
Read entire article at Thomas Sugrue in the summer issue of Democracy

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