Sweet Land of Liberty

If you’re holding on to the belief that we currently live in a post-racial America, you should stop reading this post.

Still with me? Good.

I love a book that teaches me something new, and Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (Thomas J. Sugrue) did just that. The concept of ‘hate strikes’—moments where, due to racial desegregation, white workers walked off the job en masse—for example. I also like to learn that academics have coined terms for things that I’ve experienced, but never had a name for—‘spatial mismatch,’ for the phenomenon of jobs being created in suburbs that are isolated from public transit, and therefore difficult for inner-city residents to attain.

Sugrue has written a sweeping history of the struggle against pervasive discrimination in northern cities and suburbs. An understudied topic in American history, to be sure—most histories of the civil rights movement focus on the struggle for African American freedom in the South, and most of us can remember images of the non-violent activism of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his many allies, white and black. I found it fascinating to read about equally-compelling efforts in the North, especially the campaigns for jobs (“Don’t Shop Where You Can’t Work”) and housing.

It’s also interesting to read, in the final chapters, his analysis of why whitefolks in the US have such different perspectives on things like affirmative action and welfare reform than African Americans do, even though progress has been made. Hint–the continued prevalence of white-only, or mostly-white suburbs and schools, and the correlating lack of understanding of the devastation of federal disinvestment from our central cities has something to do with it.

July 25, 2010. books, books for grown-ups.

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