Sugrue's Sweet Land of LIberty: Review and Interview

Paul Harvey

Just a bit more on Thomas Sugrue's Sweet Land of Liberty. Alan Wolfe reviews it in today's New York Times; he finds the history moving but the advocacy unconvincing, concluding:

Imagine how much more might have changed if the Northern civil rights movement had borrowed more of the moral appeal to conscience that inspired civil rights in the South.

Prior to the book's publication, Sugrue was interviewed about his work here. As if in direct response to Wolfe's review, he explains his focus on the structural and the institutional:

Q: So you’re exploring the idea that racial inequality is about institutions and not only personal attitudes?

A: That’s one of the major themes that run through my book. Since the mid-20th Century, Northerners and Americans in general have framed the question of civil rights as a moral question or a psychological question — a question about individual motivations and individual intentions. But the story of the North is a story of the ways in which racial separation and racial privilege are created and replicated through institutions. Ultimately it’s a story of the ways in which the taking for granted of how we organized our workplaces, how we organized where we live, became the foundation for deeper and more pernicious forms of racial inequality.

By explaining away racial inequality as a problem in the hearts and minds of white Americans, we also dodge having to grapple with the larger issues about the ways in which racial inequality is the result of exploitation--the result of asymmetrical power relationships. That fundamentally, as civil rights activists have highlighted, is a political problem which requires pushing the political system to demand a different allocation of power and resources.


John G. Turner said…
I'm excited to use this book for an upcoming class.

One of the things I -- and past students -- have appreciated about Sugrue is his attention to structural racism. Moreover, I appreciate how he explains that inner-city poverty didn't just "happen" but was caused by factors such as redlining, exclusionary practices on the part of unions, FHA discrimination, etc.

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