Jason Sokol says Northerners deceived themselves about racism in the North

Historians in the News
tags: racism

Jason Sokol, OC ’99, is an Associate Professor of History at the University of New Hampshire. He earned a Ph.D. in history at the University of California, Berkeley. Sokol has written two books, There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights and All Eyes Are Upon Us: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn, and is working on a third. On Tuesday, Sokol gave a talk at Afrikan Heritage House titled “America’s Long History of Racial Hypocrisy,” which addressed how many white Northerners used their states’ progressive reputations to obfuscate the racism present in their cities. 

In writing your books, would you say you were trying to fill in a “historical gap?” 

That’s part of it, though I don’t think it’s enough to just fill in a gap because there are millions of gaps, but they don’t all necessarily justify books. So to me, I felt like filling in that gap had to help me to answer some larger questions. And what I wanted to know was, basically, what did the Civil Rights Movement change, and what did it leave unchanged? To what extent did it usher in this social or political or cultural revolution, or to what extent did it just sort of come and go?

You explained in your talk that hypocrisy can be defined as “a pretense of virtue,” and a hypocrite as “one who pretends to be better than he really is.” What did you find were some of the causes of this blatant cognitive dissonance among white Northerners who claimed to be progressive while battling to uphold racist institutions? 

When talking about white Northerners, one of the guiding ideas in my recent book was the idea of the “Northern mystique” — how a lot of white Northerners had this notion that the North was better, it was more progressive, it was a place where things were possible. They started from that premise that it was an open society where there were no discrimination laws. … Part of it was a sort of blindness to facts, part of it was a willful ignorance — we talked last night about the federal housing practices and mortgage practices that actually consigned Black people to those neighborhoods. I think a lot of white Northerners wanted to continue to believe that they were enlightened, and they didn’t want to deal with the more complex and uglier facts of their own homeland. And they didn’t want to deal with their own racism. ...

Read entire article at The Oberlin Review

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