The North isn't better than the South: The real history of modern racism and segregation above the Mason-Dixon line

The North celebrates its liberalism, but that disguises a complicated relationship with discrimination, inequality

Published December 14, 2014 5:30PM (EST)

Excerpted from "All Eyes Are Upon Us: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn"

For Edward Brooke, the North pulsed with promise. Brooke first set foot in New England during World War Two, when his army regiment trained in Massachusetts. He was a native of Washington, D.C., and Washington  was a Jim Crow city. When the war ended, Brooke moved to Boston and enrolled in law school. He voted for the first time in his life. And he did much more. Brooke  was elected the state’s attorney general in 1962; four years later, he won election to the United States Senate. Brooke achieved all of this in a state that was 97 percent white. What constituted political reality in Massachusetts—an African American man winning one million white votes—was the stuff of hallucinations below the Mason-Dixon line.

At the same time, an open secret haunted America’s northern states. As the nation gazed at southern whites’ resistance to the civil rights movement—at the Klansmen and demagogues, attack dogs and cattle prods— many recoiled in horror. Northerners told themselves that such scenes emanated from a backward  land, a dying region, a place apart. Yet rampant segregation in cities across the country rendered racial inequality a national trait more than a southern aberration. When black migrants streamed north during and after World  War Two, James Baldwin reflected, “they do not escape Jim Crow: they merely encounter another, not-less-deadly variety.” They moved not to New York, but to Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant; not to Chicago, but to the South Side; not to Boston, but to Lower Roxbury.

Here were the two sides to race in  the Northeast, embodied in Brooke’s political success and in Baldwin’s cautionary tale. The cities of the Northeast were simultaneously  beacons of interracial democracy and strongholds of racial segregation.

Both stories—seemingly contradictory stories—unfolded  side by side, at the same moments, in the same places. Black neighborhoods congealed in the years after World War Two as segregated  schools  proliferated across the urban Northeast. The numbers of black northerners in poverty and behind bars would continue to grow. And yet these cities and states also incubated movements for racial equality. African Americans scored advances at the polls, in the courtrooms, and in the region’s cultural arenas as well.

The two stories are rarely told together. The North as a land  of liberty holds power in the popular mind. When the idea of “northern history” enters into the public consciousness, it often comes attached to the American Revolution or the Civil War. This was the home of the minutemen, righteous abolitionists, and the noble Union army. Many schools still teach about slavery and segregation  as distinctly southern sins. And the North continues to bask in its enlightened glow. To travel from Boston to New York is to take in Harvard and Broadway, high culture and high ideals. Northern states are blue states; they have powered American liberalism and provided the first black president with his largest margins of victory. To many Americans, the North remains  a higher place.

To scholars, however, the North  as a land of liberty has become  a straw man. No reflective historian any longer believes it. Scholars have focused on the North’s dark side. They have shown slavery’s deep roots in New England and New York City. Histories of twentieth-century America reveal the North’s bloody record of racial violence, and its stunningly segregated landscape of affluent white suburbs and destitute brown cities. In recent works of history, the North  and the South emerge  as rough racial equivalents: the South had Mississippi; the North had the Boston busing crisis. If the progressive side of the North enters into these stories, it is depicted as a rhetorical mask that hides the reality of racism.

The truth is that both stories are real, and they have coexisted—albeit uneasily. This kind of truth can be difficult to assimilate. It does not fit with a portrait of American history as the story of freedom. Neither does it jibe with an understanding of America  as the story of oppression. The larger tale weaves together these warring strands—it is a story befitting a nation that boasts an African American  president  as well as staggering racial and economic inequality.

The Northeast has been, and remains, the most American of regions. This is not because it is a glittering model of freedom and democracy. It is because the Northeast has long held genuine movements for racial democracy, and for racial segregation, within the same heart. The Northeast best illuminates the conflict that stands at the center of American race relations.

* * *

There is in the North a mystique  about the past that continues to influence the present. It is a set of ideas and ideals, a cultural complex that interacts with the stuff of electoral politics, public policy, urban and suburban landscapes, and structures of inequality. During and after World War Two, this regional mystique held its greatest strength in the corridor from Boston to Brooklyn. In this same time period, it would meet its stiffest challenge—a challenge posed by millions of black migrants from the South and by the burgeoning civil rights revolution.

As many northerners saw it, their region stood not as the embodiment of a painful duel between two American traditions. Instead, they fought nobly on one side of that battle. The Northeast’s unique spirit grew out of a selective  interpretation of its past: this story featured the Pilgrims, who sought freedom on the shores of the New World, and the Puritans. John Winthrop, the Puritan leader, famously declared: “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” Connecticut’s citizens bound themselves to key democratic principles in the first written constitution. And whereas New England’s settlers led the way toward one vision of American liberty, New Yorkers pioneered  a form of intercultural pluralism. In the words of historians Frederick Binder and David Reimers, New York City fashioned  a “climate of interethnic harmony” from its founding.

Boston and New York became de facto capitals of the nation. To Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Boston was the “hub of the universe.” E. B. White, the author and essayist, observed that New York “is to the nation what the white church spire is to the village—the visible symbol of aspiration and faith, the white plume saying that the way is up.” The Northeast, as the site of the Revolutionary War’s beginnings, also became known as the birthplace of American freedom. It was not that chattel slavery bypassed the Northeast, but that it died there decades before the Civil War. When the war broke out, Northeasterners took up arms against the slave South. After the Civil War, newly freed slaves relied upon northerners in Congress—those Radical Republicans who pursued the “unfinished revolution” known as Reconstruction.

This story of the Northeastern past reigned in the regional imagination. It accented the adventuresome spirit of the Puritans and played down the extent to which they excluded all who believed in different creeds. It scarcely acknowledged settlers’ persecution of Native Americans, the centrality of African slavery in many northern cities, episodes of brutal racial violence like the New York City Draft Riots, or the fact that Jim Crow laws had their origins in Massachusetts. In the region’s collective history, the narrative of freedom had no room in it for these less savory realities.

Northeasterners of various stripes found uses for the lofty version of regional history. Into the middle of the twentieth century, the mystique helped to frame how northerners would grapple with the stormy present. The mystique informed African Americans’ expectations, raising their hopes for equality and deepening their frustrations when the hopes went unfulfilled. Even when the rhetoric about liberty rang hollow, northern blacks could embarrass white leaders for failing to actualize this version of history. African Americans thus exposed the gap between the unceasing language of freedom and the inequalities that defined northern life.

This was nothing particularly new in America—the white embrace of freedom with one hand and the tightening of the rope with the other. But it had a different urgency in the decades after World War Two. The civil rights movement  exposed the enormity of the chasm that separated America’s ideals from its practices. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to this as a distinctly American pathology, one rooted deeply in history. “Ever since the Declaration of Independence, America  has manifested a schizophrenic  personality  on the question of race,” King wrote. “She has been torn between selves—a self in which she has proudly professed democracy and a self in which she has sadly practiced  the antithesis of democracy.” This American  schizophrenia  has played out most powerfully in the Northeast. No region professed democracy more proudly than this one. And in the Northeast, the battle between racial democracy and its antithesis actually seemed like a fair fight—at least for a time.

Utter the phrase “the South,” and absorb the images it invites: plantations and porticoes, white necks burned red by the sun, black backs whipped raw. Southern history is filled with extraordinary  images of racism. The cast of characters ranges from antebellum slaveholders to hooded Klansmen. “The South” carries an established meaning in the American mind.

In contrast, Americans’ impressions of the North are far more diffuse. This makes the North  both easier and harder to think about, to write about, and to argue about than the South. There is an opening to define “the North,” and to give it a story, yet few previous definitions to set oneself up against.

Twenty-first-century political maps paint the regions in red and blue, signifying two worlds at war inside one national soul. To many northerners, the South still feels foreign—marked  by its politics, culture, and race relations, even its weather and its food. In turn, many southerners hold fast to their regional identity, separating themselves from elitist liberals up north. Comparisons inevitably begin with prominent touchstones: Union against Confederacy, snow versus sun, New England foliage juxtaposed against Mississippi magnolias, Vermont maple syrup and Georgia pecan pie. Southerners, in twangs or drawls, still boast about life’s easier rhythms and slower pace. Northerners, through hard Boston accents or the coarse cadences of Brooklyn, continue to think of their environs  as the hub of the universe; the South stands  as retrograde or inscrutable or both.

Through the centuries, the North  has been defined as all that the South was not. Historian James Cobb asserts, “Not  only was the North everywhere the South was not, but in its relative affluence and presumed racial enlightenment, it had long seemed to be everything the impoverished and backward South was not as well.” Perceptions began to change in the late-1960s. African Americans forced southern whites to bury their Jim Crow signs; buildings burned in northern cities; the ugly faces of resistance to integration appeared in Chicago and New York and Boston.

Southern journalists raced to deliver Dixie’s eulogy. They argued that the South’s problems had become similar to others across America;  inequities now lurked in the texture of society rather than the letter of the law. According to Harry Ashmore, the longtime editor of the Arkansas Gazette, “the race problem is no longer the exclusive or even the primary property of the South.” The most important difference between North and South had vanished.

Through the 1960s, scholars  as well as civil rights leaders questioned the racial meaning of the Mason-Dixon line. In 1961, historian Leon Litwack opened North of Slavery with a trenchant  observation: the Mason-Dixon line “is a convenient  but often misleading geographical division.” Malcolm X stood before a Harlem audience in 1964 and declared: “America is Mississippi. There’s no such thing as a Mason-Dixon line—it’s America. There’s no such thing as the South—it’s America. . . . And the mistake that you and I make is letting these Northern crackers shift the weight to the Southern crackers.” Malcolm’s rhetoric was more fiery, but his message was the same.

In a 1964 book, historian Howard Zinn argued that the South had only distilled the national essence into its purest form. Dixie was America at its crudest. If the rest of the country had long attempted to conceal or dismiss the racial blights all over its face, then the South, leaping onto the front pages in the 1960s, acted as a mirror that showed America its imperfections. Zinn listed a number  of stereotypically southern traits—racism, provincialism, conservatism, violence, and militarism—that were actually basic American  ones. “The South . . . has simply taken the national genes and done the most with them. . . . Those very qualities long attributed to the South as special possessions are, in truth, American qualities, and the nation reacts emotionally to the South precisely because it subconsciously recognizes itself there.” Zinn titled his book The Southern Mystique.

* * *

In the  scholarship  on the  civil rights movement, the  classical portrait held that the regions were marked by their difference. The South had Jim Crow and the North supposedly did not. Clearly, this perspective needed revision. But some of the most recent scholarship threatens to replace this old facile argument with a new one. Scholars now highlight the most blatant examples of northern racism. Yet these extreme cases tell us less about the whole. In addition, such studies underplay the fact that the South had an all-white politics, a racial etiquette  of its own, and a unique history of slave societies, secession, and lynching.

In the South of the 1960s, “a gesture could blow up a town.” So wrote James Baldwin. A southern black man could no more look a white woman in the eye than he could drink from the “whites only” water fountain; he could no sooner omit “ma’am” from the end of a sentence  than he could represent his state in the U.S. Senate. As Baldwin noted, the most important regional difference was not found in basic racial attitudes. The difference  was that “it has never been the North’s necessity to construct an entire way of life on the legend of the Negro’s inferiority.”

When faced with the stifling atmosphere in the South, just a little room to exhale could mean the world. Lewis Steel was an attorney for the NAACP. A native New Yorker, he worked on school segregation lawsuits in the North. He had no illusions about the racism that festered in northern cities. Steel also traveled to the Deep South more than once. He was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1964, when James Chaney,  Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman went missing in Mississippi. He realized that to work for the NAACP in the Deep South was to put one’s life on the line. The North acted as a safety valve. “The instant I got on the plane” back to New York, “I could breathe,” Steel said. “They could never breathe.” In the North, “I was safer. There is no doubt about it. I could sleep in a hotel. I wasn’t worried about somebody breaking into my room and killing me.” This was a distinct advantage that Steel held over his southern brethren.

In this context, the North’s very existence was important. Jackie Robinson, Ed Brooke, Shirley Chisholm, and the NAACP’s Robert Carter— they were all crucial reminders that a Jim Crow nation still contained some sense of promise.

African Americans who migrated from the South threw these regional differences into sharp relief. They did not totally escape Jim Crow, but many still felt they had traded up. Robert Williams, who left Georgia for New York, was among the uprooted millions. Of paramount importance, he reflected,  was “feeling like a man. You can’t do that in the South, they just won’t let you.” Northern cities answered some of their prayers. As another migrant told a reporter in 1956, “I’d  rather be a lamppost in New York than the mayor of a city in Alabama.” A writer for The New Yorker would later put it this way: Black migrants exchanged the “unnameable horrors” of southern life for the “mundane humiliations” of their new land.

For novelist Ralph Ellison, the journey to the North exacted a price. “In relation to their Southern background, the cultural history of Negroes in the North  reads like the legend of some tragic people out of mythology, a  people which aspired to escape  from its own unhappy homeland to the apparent  peace of a distant mountain.” The escapees “made some fatal error in judgment and fell into a great chasm of maze-like passages that promise ever to lead to the mountain but end ever against  a wall.” They swapped the South’s racial hell for the Sisyphean futility of the North. But Ellison’s point was “not that a Negro is worse off in the North than in the South.” Because that wasn’t so. The point was that they had become refugees in the North. For Ellison, the South remained  exceptional  because of the black cultural treasures that it possessed. The South always beckoned  as a homeland  for African Americans, one by turns endearing and excruciating.

African Americans’ ability to achieve equality all too often depended upon white northerners. Whites frequently helped to forge racial breakthroughs in what might be termed “symbolic” realms—on  baseball diamonds, in human-relations programs, in state laws and in electoral politics. But economic inequalities and spatial segregation deepened by the day. Still, “symbolic” advances had real value. They helped to form the very fabric of northern society. And on the question of what was possible in the North, they constructed  a high ceiling.

White  northerners were a heterogeneous   bunch—divided by class, religion, ethnicity, and nationality. In Massachusetts, the rivalry between poor Irish Catholics and well-off Yankee Protestants was as important as the line separating white from black. New York had far more Jews than anywhere  else in America, helping to distinguish that city’s culture and politics. In Brooklyn and Boston, one was Irish, Italian, or Jewish  as much as “white.”

Yet  important  generalizations emerged. There  was a  surprising amount of agreement among whites when it came to race. Liberal leaders and purveyors of the white backlash alike believed that their region was a bastion  of racial tolerance. Louise Day Hicks led the white resistance against school integration in Boston. At the same time, she championed her city’s enlightenment. “The important thing is that I know I’m not bigoted,” Hicks said. “To me that word means all the dreadful Southern segregationist Jim Crow business that’s always shocked and revolted me.” By the same token, many liberals blanched at the prospects of open housing and school integration. Racial conservatives and progressives shared a vast middle ground. They could agree that they were more advanced than southerners, that African Americans could rise high in the North,  and that African Americans ought neither move next door nor enroll their children in majority-white schools.

Gunnar Myrdal explored this apparent contradiction in his 1944 treatise, An American Dilemma. Myrdal was a Swedish scholar who conducted one of the great studies of American race relations. Among white northerners, he observed, “almost everybody is against discrimination in general, but, at the same time, almost everybody practices discrimination in his own personal affairs.” When racial equality remained a matter  of principle, whites were all for it. But they exhibited prejudice when integration threatened to affect their everyday lives. “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.” Myrdal was surprised that northerners did not try to strip blacks of the franchise. In the realm of politics and elections, white northerners actually lived up to the “American Creed.”

Over the decades, a glue has held the conflicting sentiments together. Most white northerners agreed that their society ought to be color-blind. This allowed them to cast votes for black leaders. At the same time, even as city officials presided over segregated school systems, these officials claimed they were not segregating—because they fancied  themselves as color-blind.

While such claims to color blindness often proved empty, they presented an opening that African Americans could seize. This was what made white northerners’ racism so different: there were enormous holes in between their professed ideals and their practices, and African Americans could blow those holes wide open. The gap between  a white liberal yearning  and a segregated reality left room—small but meaningful room—for racial progress.

Excerpted from "All Eyes Are Upon Us: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn" by Jason Sokol. Published by Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2014 by Jason Sokol. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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