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August 11 , 2010

All Eyes are Upon Us

Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn


From the 19th century, when northern cities were home to strong abolitionist communities and served as a counterpoint to the slaveholding South, through the first half of the 20th century, when the North became a destination for African Americans fleeing Jim Crow, the Northeastern United States has had a long history of acceptance and liberalism. But as historian Jason Sokol reveals in All Eyes Are Upon Us, northern states like Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut were also strongholds of segregation and deep-seated racism. In All Eyes Are Upon Us, historian Jason Sokol shows how Northerners-black and white alike-have struggled to realize the North’s progressive past and potential since the 1940s, efforts that, he insists, have slowly but surely succeeded.
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During World War II, the Second Great Migration brought an influx of African Americans to Northern cities, forcing residents to reckon with the disparity between their racial practices and their racial preaching. On the one hand, black political and cultural leaders seemed to embody the so-called northern mystique of enlightenment and racial progress. All of Brooklyn-Irish and Jewish residents, Italian immigrants, and African Americans newly arrived from the South-came out to support Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947 and led the Dodgers to six World Series games. Republican Ed Brooke was elected to the Senate from Massachusetts in 1966, becoming the nation’s first black senator since Reconstruction and winning a state whose population was 97% white. David Dinkins became the first black Mayor of New York in 1990, promising to resolve the racial tensions that wracked the city.

But these achievements were by no means perfect, nor were they always representative of the African American experience in the Northeast. White Northerners who rallied behind Jackie Robinson or voted for Ed Brooke were rarely willing to reconsider their own prejudices or the policies of segregation that reigned. Jackie Robinson, like many African Americans in Bed-Stuy and Brownsville, faced housing discrimination in Brooklyn and in suburban Connecticut; Ed Brooke was undone by the anti-busing violence in South Boston; and David Dinkins’ brief tenure was undermined by ongoing racial violence and a backlash among white voters. These political and cultural victories had been significant but fragile, and they could not transcend the region’s racial strife and economic realities-or the empty claims of liberalism and color-blindness made by many white Northerners. But the gap between white liberal yearning and the segregated reality left small but meaningful room for racial progress.

As Sokol argues, the region’s halting attempts to reconcile its progressive image with its legacy of racism can be viewed as a microcosm of America’s struggles with race as a whole: outwardly democratic, inwardly imbalanced, but always challenging itself to live up to its idealized role as a model of racial equality. Indeed, Sokol posits that it was the Northeast’s fierce pride in its reputation of progressiveness that ultimately rescued the region from its own prejudices and propelled it along an unlikely path to equality.

An invaluable examination of the history of race and politics in the Northeast, All Eyes Are Upon Us offers a provocative account of the region’s troubled roots in segregation and its promising future in politicians from Deval Patrick to Barack Obama.
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