Living Color

All Eyes are Upon Us: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn BY Jason Sokol. Basic Books. Hardcover, 416 pages. $32.

The cover of All Eyes are Upon Us: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn

Justice for African Americans is as elusive as the pea in a shell game, where appearances of fairness are so finely spun that they make the victim seem complicit in the exploitation.

Suppose, for example, that you consider a good education your kids’ key to equality. Public education is locally controlled, so it matters where you live. Maybe finding the right location is a better way to ensure justice, but you must get past realtors and landlords who link your skin color to low property values. To reassure them, you’ll need at least a good job and the habits it requires. But to get that job, you need a good education. The shell game comes full circle: Justice is always somewhere else.

White school officials, real-estate brokers, and employers shift the shells, controlling your access to education, housing, and jobs, and if you challenge them politically, they enact voter-identification laws that feign fairness while actually thwarting it.

Even when elections are fair, majority-black districts are too marginal to stop the shell game. Broader, racially mixed publics that elect exemplary black candidates or cheer heroes such as Jackie Robinson, Oprah Winfrey, or Colin Powell don’t seem to stop it, either.

Why? Combing documents, news accounts, letters to the editor, and transcripts of interviews and court testimony, the historian Jason Sokol has been following the shell game’s guises and ironies, first in the South in his 2007 book, There Goes My Everything, and now in the Northeast in All Eyes Are Upon Us. He lets the players speak for themselves instead of foregrounding his own voice and analysis. But his opinions and values do inflect the selection and presentation of his findings in a book that complicates and confounds widely accepted narratives of victory over racism and of racism’s devious resilience.

He wants to show that reality isn’t as “black and white” as either postracialists or die-hard racialists suppose. Actually, he writes, “enlightened racial attitudes could coexist quite easily with racial segregation,” often in the same individuals and in communities speaking out of both sides of their collective mouths. Blacks as well as whites play the racial shell game, and the game seems to play them by trading on their human weaknesses and yearnings. Occasional displays of interracial tolerance and solidarity only reinforce the game by giving its players moral cover and small approximations of justice in selective gestures—exceptions that prove the rule.

In There Goes My Everything, Sokol let both black and white political actors in the gradually desegregating South illumine cultural depths that legal advocates often ignored. He faithfully recorded the bewilderment of once-privileged whites who believed that they had earned the gracious deference of African Americans in the old order. Sokol also recounted how lawyers ignored racial mores that civil-rights activists had to reckon with delicately in devising strategies to replace the old understandings on which many blacks, too, relied. Absent a culture of communication and trust, equality could be almost as empty as the old hierarchies’ perverse intimacies.

Now, in All Eyes Are Upon Us, he shows Northeastern whites, like their Southern counterparts, proclaiming interracial comity by offering enough moral cover to the shell game to make it seem fair. He depicts righteous and self-congratulatory liberal New Yorkers and New Englanders touting interracial solidarity against injustice without actually doing much to end the shell game’s daily ravages—especially if doing so might imperil their interests as much as those of the white ethnics who’d bear the brunt of the costs.

He highlights a nationally celebrated plan in Springfield, Massachusetts, during the Second World War to advance interracial understanding through school curricula and forums. These public rebukes to Aryan racism coexisted with de facto segregation in Springfield’s housing and schools. And when Mississippi senator Theodore Bilbo assailed the Springfield Plan in a 1947 book, Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization, its creators could feel morally justified without lifting a finger to change Springfield’s school-assignment system.

Similarly, Sokol notes that whites who cheered the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson after he broke baseball’s color bar in 1947 refused to integrate their neighborhoods and union halls. He also relates that in 1966, a million Massachusetts whites proudly made Edward Brooke the first black US senator since Reconstruction, even as they schemed to keep blacks out of their daily lives. Some of these whites would later cost Brooke his Senate seat in 1978, after he defended court-ordered busing.

New York City mayor Robert Wagner welcomes teenagers from the newly integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1958.
New York City mayor Robert Wagner welcomes teenagers from the newly integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1958.

Sokol doesn’t call these whites hypocritical or disparage blacks who accommodated and sometimes inspired them. At Dodgers’ games, on school committees, and in election campaigns, whites generally wanted to think themselves fair-minded, and Sokol shows us not only their two-facedness but also the utter sincerity of both faces: He finds their ambivalence about blacks far more nuanced—and even more justified, tactically and morally—than the moralism of distant observers who brandished rigid ideological frames and sentimental or censorious narratives.

He laments that “the progressive side of the North” is presented by many scholars only “as a rhetorical mask that hides the reality of racism,” even though “both stories are real, and they have coexisted—albeit uneasily.” A larger, truer story “weaves together these warring strands . . . befitting a nation that boasts an African-American president as well as staggering racial and economic inequality.”

In Sokol’s account, we find people professing color blindness to serve wildly different agendas. School officials defensively note, with technical accuracy, that in consigning poor students to underfunded and underperforming schools, they are acting solely on the basis of residence, not race. Martin Luther King Jr., very much by contrast, invoked a more expansive and hopeful version of the color-blind ideal when he insisted that his children “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Sokol also notes that whites running the shell game often claim that they steer blacks away because they have to bow to electoral and market forces that don’t affect their affluent liberal critics. As the busing wars in Charlestown and South Boston made painfully clear, elite liberal social engineers seldom put their calls for justice to the test in their own neighborhoods and schools.

Brooke emerges in All Eyes Are Upon Us as an emblematic figure, attempting to live honorably amid such contradictions. Interviewed by Sokol decades after his retirement, he recalled his balancing act as a public official who had to be color-blind but also a beacon of blacks’ hopes. Sokol depicts Brooke tying himself to the mast of court-ordered school busing as he confronted clever dodgers such as Delaware senator Joe Biden while separating himself from “black power” militants such as Stokely Carmichael. His dilemmas anticipated those that Barack Obama faces four decades later, not long after becoming the second African American since Brooke elected to the Senate.

For all the nuance of Sokol’s portrait of Northeastern racial conflicts, his inclination to reveal without condemning misses both intimate and larger forces. He recounts too many Election Night victory celebrations—in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Hartford, and Boston—where black winners and their delirious, integrated supporters punched the air triumphantly, only to find later that they were punching nothing but air, unable to stop the shell game. The historian David Chappell notes that the impulse “to personify epic achievements” is “one of humanity’s ways to record complexity, to compress without removing the unpredictable and irreducible—to enliven the past.”

But by indulging that impulse, Sokol miscarries his own archival approach. He barely mentions ordinary Brooklynites’ reactions to the assassinations of King and Robert F. Kennedy during the 1968 congressional race between Shirley Chisholm and James Farmer, which he otherwise chronicles minutely. He makes cartoon characters out of Louise Day Hicks, Rudolph Giuliani, and other opponents of his black exemplars, but they’re as complicated as they are outrageous, as I can attest with some authority in Giuliani’s case.

Sokol argues that “due to the media coverage at the time, as well as to a spate of books written in the decades since, Americans have long viewed the busing crisis through the eyes of working-class whites. . . . But to focus on their grievances is to miss a significant part of the story.” True enough, but surprising coming from someone who has paid such close attention to Southern whites. Might Sokol be channeling his own formative experiences with white ethnics in his hometown of Springfield, which is the subject of his opening chapter and most of another?

I, too, grew up in Springfield, starting in 1947, when Senator Bilbo attacked the Springfield Plan. As I was attending its public schools, my father, a small-businessman, resigned from a Masonic lodge that refused to admit a black applicant and hired a black man to the chagrin of his white employees.

Jewish families like mine supported integration more than our white-ethnic neighbors did. Have memories of their obduracy influenced Sokol’s handling of them and, for that matter, of ordinary African Americans? I sense this narrative distancing also because I lived in white-ethnic Boston neighborhoods during the busing crisis and know firsthand every black Brooklyn neighborhood, political figure, and controversy that appears in Sokol’s chapters on New York.

That said, this honest, conscientious book inventively “weaves together these warring strands” of a nation that, as Sokol puts it, has been “able to achieve stunning progress” but is still “unable to absorb the new story it has authored.” Historians and other scholars help us absorb that story best when they remind us that intimate engagement and writerly grace can take us where methodological austerity cannot.

Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (Norton, 1990) and Liberal Racism (Viking, 1997).