Review of Jason Sokol’s “All Eyes Are Upon Us: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn"

tags: racism, Ferguson, Eric Garner

Robert Polner, a public affairs officer for New York University, co-authored “The Man Who Saved New York: Hugh Carey and the Great Fiscal Crisis of 1975”; edited “America’s Mayor, America’s President: The Strange Career of Rudy Giuliani”; and formerly reported for New York and New Jersey daily newspapers.

Growing up, I felt proud when the majority of votes in my hometown of Great Neck, N.Y., supported George McGovern in the 1972 Nixon landslide. Only one state in the country plus the District of Columbia went with the anti-war McGovern – and that was Massachusetts, which, like Great Neck, was regarded as liberally disposed.

The community where I was raised was typical of many across the Northeast in assuming it was possessed  of an enlightened civic attitude on many issues, not least of them race. The adults with whom I interacted were inspired by the civil-rights movement and shared its goals of voting rights, integration and equal opportunity. One only needed to look at the news footage of state troopers beating the nonviolent marchers in Mississippi and Alabama to appreciate that we middle- class whites of the Northeast were, well, much more civilized as a group. White supremacy did not have a chokehold on the region’s prideful sense of what it was or wanted to be. Down in Dixie, it most definitely did.

And yet many of my friends and neighbors – the children or the   grandchildren of Jewish immigrants – took for granted or were willfully blind to the elephant in our midst: the nearly all-white complexion of Great Neck itself and the everyday hardships of poor people and especially poor people of color living on the other side of the tracks. As a bedroom community, Great Neck was leafy and quiet. In my memory, its peace was not disturbed by the civil-rights struggles, and its liberal values were not tested.

Reading Jason Sokol’ s history of Northeast race relations and politics since World War II, All Eyes Are Upon Us, brought back some of these recollections. The book, his second since his 2007 work on the desegregating South (There Goes My Everything), explores the perverse relationship between the Northeast’s progressive ideals concerning race, and the resilience of discrimination and segregation throughout the region. As he sees it, one has fueled and provided   cover for the other.  “The mystique” – the Northeast’s much-idealized sense of itself as blazing the path toward interracial democracy - “could operate both ways.”

An assistant professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, Sokol does not seek to indict all Northeastern whites for hypocrisy, but rather to illuminate this duality. Unlike the Deep South’s aversion to giving blacks equal access to schools and neighborhoods populated by whites, the Northeast’s patterns have come about less obviously, its invisible barriers erected not with lynching, church bombings, and the poll tax, but with zoning regulations, real estate bylaws, bankers’ decisions and the G.I. bill home loans that all but excluded black veterans.

Sokol’s larger point centers on the irony that some of the Northeast’s most significant breakthroughs in racial relations have only sought to obscure the racial partitions and disparities across the region. Sokol gives Jackie Robinson all the enormous credit he’s due, but largely to show that as white and black fans cheered him in the marvelously ecumenical Ebbets Field in 1947, Brooklyn’s black neighborhoods remained burdened with dilapidated housing, second-rate schools, and the impunity of a mainly white police force.

Blacks aspiring for local political office were also largely passed over, while the press ignored their communities except when they figured in the police blotter, in which instances their race was printed as if pertinent to the crime.

In the wake of the euphoria over Robinson, the Brooklyn Eagle ran an unusual series of articles that documented the grim quality of life in the under-served black neighborhoods of the borough where about 100,000 African-Americans lived. The reporter, Syd Frigand, went on to become press secretary to New York’s first Jewish mayor, Abe Beame, a product of the powerful Brooklyn Democratic clubhouse, but by then -- the mid-1970s -- the conditions for blacks had gotten only worse, aggravated by white flight, deepening poverty, and floods of illegal handguns and drugs. The Northeast’s de-industrialization was gathering momentum, and would prove calamitous for the Northeast urban cores and especially for their low-income African-Americans, given that they already had high rates of joblessness. Minorities would be further injured by the Reagan administration’s enthusiastic cuts in funds for social services for the poor and its white-backlash politics.

What Robinson provided to Brooklyn and the rest of the Northeast with    his dignity, stoicism and defiance was the dramatic evidence it welcomed that racism had no place in a busy community of immigrants with a collective social conscience. Yet blacks at that very moment he broke the color line and for decades after were living separate, unequal lives resulting from entrenched, segregated housing patterns and realty practices – their condition invisible to many progressive-minded whites. “Don’t call my generation racist,” Sokol quotes one Irish-American Brooklyn writer, looking back years later. “I didn’t even know you people existed.” 

Fanning out to other parts of the postwar Northeast, “All Eyes Are Upon Us” offers equally fascinating portraits of several successful black politicians, perhaps chief among them the late Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, who in 1966 became the first African-American ever to be elected by popular vote to the United States Senate. The politically and temperamentally moderate Brooke won the votes of blacks and whites in asking to be judged by his record, not his race. He summoned the Northeast mystique in a liberal state where Northern abolitionism had taken root and blacks later found haven from the Jim Crow South, and modern-day whites considered themselves, as voters, race-blind.

But Brooke’s distinguished Senate career – he supported aid to the urban poor, reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and the forces seeking to drive Richard Nixon from office – went by the boards when he firmly supported what its Democratic opponents (including Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware) labeled as “forced busing.” Brooke saw school transfers as an imperfect court remedy, but the only available method for black to escape their inferior, ghetto schools. The response of white, working-class parents, of course, was bitter and violent. Senator Ted Kennedy found this out the hard way, coming perilously close to being physically assaulted when he showed up as a supporter of busing at an anti-busing rally just outside the building where he had his office; the angry crowd surged toward him, shouting threats and insults and smashing the pane-glass windows of the office tower as Kennedy retreated.

"Here, in 1974, was the postwar Northeast in miniature," Sokol writes. “It was a place where African Americans could achieve epic advances in the realm of electoral politics, but where whites seemed unwilling to abide racial equality in everyday life.”

Damaged by all the anti-busing furor, in addition to Brooke’s political career, was the Senate voting bloc that had given America the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and Medicare, and which had even come close to outlawing discriminatory housing practices in the Northeast in response to Lyndon Johnson’s vision for a “Great Society.”

Sokol uses an impressive variety of official documents, court transcripts, letters to the editor and speeches, along with recollections of participants he himself has interviewed. The combination of historical and journalistic research allows him to demonstrate the enormous gap between the Northeast’s political ideals and its enduring racism. In telling the story of such artful and passionate coalition builders as Congresswoman (and presidential candidate) Shirley Chisholm of Brooklyn, Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, and Mayor Thirman Milner of Hartford (the fourth-poorest city in America in 1980 when Milner, a product of poverty arrived; it became the poorest by 2010) and Mayor David Dinkins of New York, he uses more of a pointillist approach than broad brushstrokes. The approach is a refreshing departure from recent histories of iconic American figures and epic events aimed for the best-seller lists. He also allows the perceptions of many participants in this history, major and minor, to shape and deepen his own.

A very compelling part of the book describes the pioneering but now mostly forgotten curriculum on race that Springfield, Mass., educators developed and rolled out in 1939, believing that educating children about race in America and their own diverse city would help erase the stain of racism and bring about a  more egalitarian democracy. As totalitarianism rose in Europe, American magazine and newspaper writers flocked to the 60,000- person city to chronicle and praise “The Springfield Plan,” and while dozens of school districts, including Great Neck’s, came to adopt it, Kenneth Clark visited to conduct his psychological experiments with black schoolchildren and dolls that would influence the outcome of Brown v. Board of Education.

Still, it is surprising to read that in the mid-1960s, when school transfers and other integration measures loomed for Springfield itself, the local school board resisted, and outraged whites poured into the streets, setting fires at night to parts of Downtown, much to the dismay of the liberal, white mayor. The national media paid little attention to Springfield this time, since the Watts ghetto in Los Angeles was also burning. Yet what happened in Springfield, the distance it had traveled, was just as telling a demonstration of the tenacity of racism, as at least one prescient Congress of Racial Equality official quoted in the book observed at that time. It was also a prelude to the Boston backlash of less than a decade later.

I took issue with a few of Sokol’s interpretations. He made too much of  Brooklyn Dodger President and General Manager Branch Rickey’s commercial motivations for recruiting Jackie Robinson, as he was surely as strongly motivated by his religious and moral convictions as he was by the prospect of increasing his fan base. The author’s implication, too, that the very politically conservative Rickey bowed to Communist pressure in recruiting a black ballplayer struck me as highly questionable. That was actually the red-baiting charge made against Rickey by opponents of mixing races.

The book also suffers a bit from the repetition of Sokol’s thesis      concerning the double-edged nature of the Northeast’s mystique. But these are only quibbles and, in fairness, the repetition of the main theme is probably warranted on a subject about which the reader may hold so many personal, pre-conceived notions and, yes, prejudices. How else can one make the case so effectively and penetrate the layers of denial and defensiveness that the issue of race invariably provokes?

Inexorably, his well-composed narrative leads to the advent of America’s first president of color as well as the initial hopes of throngs of supporters that his election marked the dawn of a “post-racial” society. Sokol clearly views Barack Obama’s election as more than merely symbolic, especially for younger blacks and veterans of the civil-rights struggles. But the author’s research asks us to be cautious, for when it comes to racial progress, it has often been a case of one step forward and one – or two – steps back.

“[T]he Northeast,” Jason Sokol concludes, “has been a place at war with itself. It has been drawn to its lofty ideals, its dreams of justice, its noble heritage; yet it has also been deeply committed to racial segregation and economic inequality. As such, the Northeast has shaped and mirrored America’s adventure with race over the past seventy-five years: able to achieve stunning progress, culminating in the election of a black president, and yet unable to fully turn the page, unable to absorb the new story it has authored, unable to let that future out in the light.”

Indeed, in Obama’s America, many whites, even those living in the largely homogeneous suburbs of the Northeast, are still capable of being shocked by eruptions of deep-seated, structural racism; just consider the very recent police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., and the response of local law-enforcement officials. But anyone who absorbs the lessons of “All Eyes Are Upon Us” are unlikely to be surprised.


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