Reshaping the Liberal Conscience: A Reflection on Jason Sokol’s "All Eyes Are Upon Us"

By Michael Brosnan

I grew up in the New York metropolitan area, went to college in Boston, and have lived most of my adult life in Maine and New Hampshire. This makes me part of a region known for its political liberalism. With its “Live Free or Die” motto, New Hampshire is the least liberal place in the Northeast, but in the last two presidential elections, it went for Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. It currently has an all-Democratic — and all-female — Congressional delegation in Washington.

I admire much about the region’s aspirational politics, but I’m also aware that, when it comes to race, there’s a troubling gap between the ideals espoused in Northeast liberalism and the reality of life. Another way to put it: The Northeast is as racially divided and inequitable as any region of the country. This was true in the mid-20th century. It’s true today. As a New Englander who has spent time working on social justice issues, I find this reality disconcerting. How is it that the region can elect numerous African-American politicians — mayors Thirman Milner in Hartford, and David Dinkins in New York; Senator Edward Brooke in Massachusetts; seven-term Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm in New York; and Governor Deval Patrick in Massachusetts; among others — and yet its major cities have remained centers of racial tension and persistent divide?

In 2004, Steve Clem, the executive director of the Association of Independent Schools in New England, pointed out to me that New England’s independent schools, while mostly progressive in philosophy, were coming up short when it came to appointing heads of color, hiring and retaining teachers of color, and enrolling students of color. He had asked me to write a research- and solution-based monograph to help schools move forward with their multicultural ideals. So I studied key research on inclusion in education, interviewed dozens of school leaders who were having success in meeting espoused diversity goals or who had important insights into steps all schools could take, and then wrote not one but three monographs. In my naiveté, I assumed that having these documents in print and online — with plenty of references to successful practices — would transform schools within a couple of years.

Now I know differently. But even so, the forces of resistance to racial equity and integration in the Northeast puzzle me. By all accounts, we should be in a much better place.

So it was with interest that I picked up a copy of Jason Sokol’s 2014 book All Eyes Are Upon Us: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn. Sokol explores the irony of a region that professes to be racially welcoming and yet remains racially divided. Sokol doesn’t have the answers, but he does punch holes in the Northeast’s mystique about itself as a racially welcoming place and makes it clear that those of us who live in the region have been “unable to fully turn the page” from a racist history to a present that embraces pluralism.

What attracted me to Sokol’s book is that he narrows the focus to New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts — three of the nation’s most liberal states. Sokol, an associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, makes a clear distinction between racism in the North and the South. James Baldwin, for one, observed that “it has never been the North’s necessity to construct an entire way of life on the legend of the Negro’s inferiority.” Yet African Americans migrating north in the decades after the Civil War, in Sokol’s words, “swapped the South’s racial hell for the Sisyphean futility of the North.” There was, in other words, a deep cruelty in the promise of a better life in the North.

If you are inclined to think, “OK, that was then, but surely things are better now,” Sokol and others would tell you it’s only in a matter of degree.

What Swedish scholar Gunnar Myrdal observed about America in the 1940s holds true today in New York and New England: “ The ordinary American follows higher ideals and is more of a responsible democrat when he votes as a citizen… than when he just lives his own life as an anonymous individual.”

The gaps between professed ideals and practices have led us to our current situation. Many in the Northeast have worked hard for racial equity in each generation, but Sokol surfaces the start-and-stop pattern of such efforts. In the late 1930s, to take an example from the field of education, the good citizens of Springfield, Massachusetts, embraced the Springfield Plan — essentially a plan to teach a multicultural curriculum in integrated public schools. The plan was influenced by John Dewey but created by John Granrud, a Columbia Teachers College graduate and superintendent of the Springfield public schools. Granrud was asking schools to do what many of us are asking schools to do today: teach democratic engagement as a means to curb racial and religious prejudice created in the broader culture. The impetus for this plan was the need to respond to the racial segregation in Springfield itself, but also to the growing nationalism that was sweeping the globe, which gave rise to Hitler and Mussolini as well as, in this country, the conservative America First Party led by Gerald L.K. Smith.

The Springfield Plan was born of the progressive belief that our strength is our collective diversity. The plan got lots of positive press in the Northeast and led to spin-off programs in Brookline, New York City, Denver, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Portland (Oregon), and elsewhere.

Somewhere between then and now, however, most of the hard-won progress slipped away. One might predict this in a region of the country that espoused separation of the races and promoted one as superior to others, but why and how did this happen in the Northeast? What combination of cultural, political, and economic forces overpowered the Springfield Plan and other efforts at equity and justice? Why is racial inequity still a central issue of contemporary life — given all that we know and believe?

I could walk readers through Sokol’s book, which takes us up to the election of Barack Obama and the accompanying hope, once again, for societal transformation. But I think you get the point. Why did Brooklynites embrace Jackie Robinson on the field, but resist integrated neighborhoods? How could Boston vote twice for Edward Brooke, the first African-American U.S. Senator since Reconstruction, and then be the site of intense resistance to school integration? How did New York City, our nation’s most pluralistic city with an African-American mayor, become a hotbed of intense racial violence in the 1980s? Is it inevitable that the Obama presidency, which did give many of us hope, would give rise to a white supremacy backlash?

Sokol’s job is not to answer these questions, but to help us see the ongoing irony of a region that likes to think of itself as culturally progressive. There are many other writers, of course, who address this problem and its cultural staying power — including James Baldwin and his contemporary counterpart, Ta-Nehisi Coates, as well as researchers such as Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Cornel West, bell hooks, Beverly Daniel Tatum, and Pedro Noguera. The stories of the effects of the ongoing racism are laid out in the literary works of Richard Wright, Zora Neal Hurston, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, and Gwendolyn Brooks, and in contemporary writers such as Toni Morrison, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Colson Whitehead, Nikki Giovanni, and Claudia Rankine. Numerous writers, including Tim Wise, Debby Irving, and Peggy McIntosh, have written thoughtfully about white identity and privilege as well as the persistence of white supremacy. Many journalists have also tackled the contemporary version of racial inequity and tension, including Jamelle Bouie in Slate, Radley Balko in the Washington Post, Tanzina Vega in the New York Times, and, again, Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic. This is just a surface list of hardworking writers who long for, work for, a more just society.

What I want to see happen, however, is for the majority whites in this region — if not the entire nation — to play a more active role, to not only read these works but also open up this conversation in a more public way, take it to heart. In particular, I’d love to see white educators get more engaged in the conversation — given that they are key gatekeepers of future culture.

What struck me personally about Sokol’s account of racial tensions and inequities in the 1970s and 1980s is that I was a young adult at the time. I was aware of some of these issues — certainly the bussing battles in Boston when I was a college student in the city. But I don’t recall having any deep conversations with other adults about it. Any conversation stayed on the surface — in which we expressed dismay and vaguely wished for something better, then went off to do something else. If all of us who are white and of a certain age had embraced this conversation back then, if we had done our homework and engaged in cross-racial dialogue and connection, if we had explored what it means to be white in a white-dominant culture, if we understood that a commitment to social justice was not only the moral thing to do but also the best path to fulfilling the American promise, we would all be in a better place today. Since we can’t change the past, I hope we can open up the conversations today — in our homes, schools, churches, newspapers, and elsewhere — so that thirty years hence we won’t be reading another painful, well-researched account of how, once again, we fell woefully short of our aspirations.

When it comes to racial justice, what I want, in particular, is that those of us who call ourselves liberals, or progressives, or even simply Democrats to read and talk intelligently and openly about race. In order to bend the arc of history with greater moral force, we first need to know what the arc is made of — and what we’ve personally contributed to it.

Sokol concludes his book with this observation: “On the matter of race, the Northeast has been a place at war with itself.”

Let’s each do our part in ending this war.

 

Michael Brosnan is the senior editor at Teaching While White.