"Is the North really any better?": Why the region's race politics are so misunderstood

Civil rights historian Jason Sokol tells Salon about the complicated reality of race relations outside the South

Published December 16, 2014 1:30PM (EST)

Jason Sokol       (Nina Morrison)
Jason Sokol (Nina Morrison)

When Americans, or indeed people all over the world, think of what white supremacy looked like in the New Deal-era United States, the images that come to mind are usually associated with the South. We think of the Klan, the burning cross, the racially segregated water fountains, the Army of Northern Virginia's battle flag, and so forth. But as historian Jason Sokol argues in his new book, and as the recent events in Staten Island, Cleveland and elsewhere remind us, racism in America is and always has been a nationwide affair.

Recently, Salon spoke with Sokol over the phone about "All Eyes Are Upon Us: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn," his new look at the civil rights movement's struggles in the North, and the ways its successes (and failures) still resonate today. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

I think it's understood now, at least better than it used to be, that the old dichotomy (North good, South bad) is too simplistic. Still, there are a lot of books for a popular audience about what life for African-Americans was like in the Jim Crow South, and way fewer about what it was like to be black in the North during some of the same time. What made you want to tackle this subject head-on?

In part, I've been thinking about this my entire life because I grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, and I was always interested in race and issues of racial inequality. I wrote my first book on the civil rights movement in the South but I was always also thinking about the North and I got a lot of questions about, well, is the North really any better?

My book tries to strike a balance. On the one hand, in the popular imagination, there's still a pretty dogged belief that race isn't as central to Northern history as it is to the South. Or, even going further than that, some people still believe that the North is a land of liberty. On the other hand, many scholars have recently written about the long history of racial violence and segregation and slavery in the North. My book wants to take seriously both traditions, both stories — that is, the story of the North as a place of possibility for African-Americans and for democracy in America, but that also wants to take seriously the reality of segregation and racism.

Let's start on the bright side. How was living in the North different — and better — for African-Americans than living in the South?

What I emphasize is the fact that African-Americans could vote in the North. They, in fact, did run for office and did win office, sometimes through urban machines in, say, Chicago or … Brooklyn.

For example, I have the story of Ed Brooke in Massachusetts, who built basically one of the first interracial coalitions. He was the first black senator popularly elected in American history, and the first black senator elected since the Reconstruction. Massachusetts was 97 percent white, but still you had all these white voters who were willing — even eager — to vote for an African-American candidate.

It's not that African-American officeholders were able to change every reality; it's not that they were able to end black poverty in Northern cities or abolish housing segregation or school segregation. But someone like Ed Brooke, who was known as a moderate, even he stood on the Senate floor time and again and rallied in favor of school integration during the time of busing in Boston. He proposed amendment after amendment about fair housing. So he did struggle for things, and I think that's important and meaningful — even if all of those realities on the ground weren't ultimately transformed.

You mention how Southern racism barred African-Americans from voting in a way the Northern version did not. What were some differences in how Northern racism manifested itself?

I think the results of the racism, in the end, were fairly similar. Across the country, you often had segregated school systems and neighborhoods — and a vast income gap between whites and racial minorities — but I think the manner and the way in which that came about was quite different. Of course, the North didn't have written into its state laws these very explicit codes. In a way, it's true that the racism was more covert in the North, which is I think how some people think of it.

One important thing to realize is that many white Northerners basically believe that they weren't segregationists, even if they were pursuing policies that led to segregation; whereas in the South, the leaders almost proudly proclaimed that they were segregationists in the '40s and '50s and '60s. That reality could cut both ways. This is what I call an attachment to the belief in colorblindness. Northern leaders believe that they, for instance, didn't take into account race when they were assigning kids where to go to school or something. And yet, in New York, Boston and smaller cities like Springfield, you still had schools that were, in effect, racially segregated. Still, school boards pursued redistricting and transfer policies that kept white schools white and black schools black and then turned around and said they weren't segregationists.

One of my chapters is called "If We Were Segregationists" and it's about the leaders of Smithson. In their closing arguments against the NAACP they said, "If we were segregationists, we would've just said ‘every black child goes to this school’ but we're not." It was an ideology and a set of practices that it became much harder for African-Americans to combat, because there wasn't as much to point at [as there was in the South] that was obviously unconstitutional.

Yet, at the same time, it left this opening for actual progress to occur. In certain moments, say, an African-American activist could convince white leaders to actually take seriously their professions to [believe in] democracy and forge these breakthroughs.

The hypocrisy was almost productive, then? The tension between word and deed was present in the North in a way it wasn’t in the South, because the South didn’t pretend to be racially progressive the way the North did?

Right, and I think if and when African-American activists, or white leaders who were genuinely committed to integration and racial equality — if and when they were able to expose that hypocrisy in the right way and appeal to the right kinds of desires, they could forge these breakthroughs and achieve these moments of progress that, I think, weren't necessarily possible elsewhere.

One story I tell in my book is when Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut made a speech on the Senate floor in 1970, and he said the North is guilty of monumental hypocrisy in its treatment of the black man. That speech sent the Senate into a tizzy, and suddenly everyone was debating the contours of Northern segregation and Northern racism. There are a number of articles written in response where all these famous journalists considered the question, and one article that I was particularly struck by was by [liberal Southerner] Robert Sherrill in the Nation. He said, "You're right — white Northerners stuff African-Americans in slums, and it's extremely repressive and racist in the North, too." But he also says that the North has always had a wider range of legitimate places for debate on issues of race than the South. (People could take views in public that they couldn't take in the South, for instance.)

Sherrill said that if Southerners finally convince Americans that the North is just as bad, then … advocates for racial equality don't have anywhere to go, in essence. There has only been a small and narrow area for racial progress in the North — but it has existed. So to dismiss that and forget that would be to resign oneself that we are just the Jim Crow nation. And he didn't want to do that.

That speaks to the tough balance that President Obama is often trying to maintain between acknowledging how entrenched and serious a problem racism still is while, at the same time, recognizing the progress that’s been made — which is reason to hope more progress can be made in the future. Obama is very conscious of this balance and its purpose, I think; but were activists during the time you focused on similarly self-aware?

I think that particular balance is somewhat new, and I think Obama uses himself so often as the living proof of one side of that story. He sort of acknowledges or hints to his own presence as the proof of our progress, while on the other hand trying to say that we have a long way to go. At times it can come off as wishy-washy. The difficulty is that I think he's right in striking the balance but then the question is: Is that the right way for him to exercise and influence his leadership? It's one thing to accurately describe a problem; it's another thing to devise a strategy of leadership on racial inequality.

I didn't all that often find activists who explicitly understood that sort of conundrum of Northern race relations while they were in the moment, but I quote the head of the NAACP in Boston, who said fairly recently that Boston's history has two sides, and [it] should start to own that. In most places in America, the story of race is really a one-sided story in that the forces of segregation and racism so often won out. What he was saying is that Boston actually has this heritage of abolitionism and efforts for racial progress, so we should own that duality in [its] past.

Is there something especially Northern about how Obama approaches racial politics?

Obama's ascendency and his tenure in office illuminates a few of the larger points of the book, which is why I end with him. One is the conundrum of the black leader, which is that he has to build a multiracial coalition in order to win election. Obama is someone who is certainly committed to racial equality and to enlarging the abilities of African-Americans; and yet it's so hard for him to say that explicitly…

The other difficulty is the reality that, no matter what Obama does, he can't solve all the racial inequalities in America. He really can't even begin to. He can pass things like the [Affordable Care Act], but we have these wide, wide income gaps right now. He can propose to put body cameras on police officers and he can make sure that people's right to protest is upheld — but he can't really end poverty. That's a sobering realization. I've found that conundrum [often present] for those black politicians who are able to achieve some things in the North, but not everything.

I'd say the final thing that his election and reelection shows is that white Northerners are much more progressive than white Southerners. It should be an obvious thing by now, but there's still a temptation for people to say that race in the North is the same as race in the South. One way to take issue with that notion is to just look at elections. No Democrat in the South would dare utter the name of Barack Obama while trying to get reelected. Sure, his popularity rating is down from what it was, but he's still popular among white voters in the states I look at. That, to me, is an important and meaningful difference, not to be dismissed just because you still have grinding black poverty in the North.

We spent most of the conversation talking big picture themes — but this is a history book, at heart, and it captures a lot of great anecdotes, and moments from a time that is both familiar and also profoundly different. Is there any one story or tidbit we didn’t get to that you’d want to share before I let you go?

Well, the epilogue to the Abe Ribicoff story is that after his speech, white Southerners held him up as a hero. There were political cartoons of him in Southern newspapers where they were basically worshiping this liberal Jew from Connecticut. Here's the Northern liberal who finally told the ruth about race in the North! That was in 1970, and the year after, Ribicoff actually offered a program that would integrate every last urban and suburban school in the country. He said it would take 12 years to do that. What I find so fascinating about this story is that the NAACP opposed his plan because they said that 12 years was too long to wait. Of course, we're still waiting.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

MORE FROM Elias Isquith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abe Ribincoff Barack Obama Ed Brook Jason Sokol Jim Crow Jim Sherrill Race Racism White Supremacy