The Oberlin Review

Off the Cuff: Jason Sokol, History Professor and Author

Jason Sokol, Associate Professor of History at the University of New Hampshire

Courtesy of Jason Sokol

Jason Sokol, Associate Professor of History at the University of New Hampshire

Adam Gittin, News Editor

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 Jason Sokol, OC ’99, is an Associate Professor of History at the University of New Hampshire. He earned a Ph.D. in history at the University of California, Berkeley. Sokol has written two books, There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights and All Eyes Are Upon Us: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn, and is working on a third. On Tuesday, Sokol gave a talk at Afrikan Heritage House titled “America’s Long History of Racial Hypocrisy,” which addressed how many white Northerners used their states’ progressive reputations to obfuscate the racism present in their cities. 

What made you want to study history at Oberlin?

I was initially interested in journalism; I was interested in writing and I was always interested in politics and race. My first major was philosophy — I studied with a professor named Norman Care, who has since passed away, but who was a beloved philosophy professor. Because of classes with him I decided to major in philosophy. I found that I didn’t love all the other philosophy classes. The material in history was much more interesting to me. I had always been interested in race and civil rights, so the opportunity to study and focus on that in a more serious, intellectual way was exciting to me. And I did always want to write nonfiction, so I thought with history I did have the opportunity to do that.

How did you decide to write on the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 for your honors thesis? 

I was always interested in the civil rights movement and classic tales of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, and I was looking for a new or novel or different angle or story on it. In one of my classes — “Recent America,” taught by a visiting professor named David Stradling — we had read an article about what was more important to the civil rights movement: leaders like King or was it a grassroots, bottom-up sort of thing? And I was really fascinated by that question, [by] trying to understand how social change happened, how racial change happened.

When I first read about the Memphis strike — this was a strike where the garbage workers themselves had decided to walk off the job and call a strike, independent of any union — that seemed like a thing that was very clearly grassroots. … But then King came to town, and [the workers] ultimately triumphed only after King’s assassination, so it seemed like the perfect kind of a movement to think about that question about leaders versus followers or how social change happened.

And it also had the labor angle too. It wasn’t just a civil rights protest; it was also a labor strike. And I felt that that was somehow more relevant to today, because by 1968 Jim Crow had been defeated, at least in the law books. The Voting Rights Act had been passed. So this was ’68, Black Southerners were still struggling. That seemed to me more relevant to our own times, where they weren’t struggling against some old Jim Crow law, but they were waging a movement that was about economic inequality and poverty and race and class, which are all still issues that I felt were alive.

How do you take an idea and start to turn it into a book, or a larger story that you’re trying to tell?

             For me, I always look for models: I always think about what books I like, which books seem to me exciting and amazing. I don’t necessarily always know how those authors frame their ideas, but I do know how narrow or how broad their stories are, or what kind of stories they tell. I didn’t end up writing a book about the Memphis strike. My first book was about how white Southerners experienced the Civil Rights years. … I was in grad school reading all these books about the Civil Rights Movement and African-American history, and I didn’t wonder about the Klansmen — it was clear what they thought about civil rights — but I did start wondering about how all those other millions of white southerners thought about or experienced what was happening. So that was the kernel of the idea of the book, and once you get [that] then the trick is to find the exciting or interesting stories, or interesting people. So I started with the idea, and then looked for the stories of the people who could illuminate that idea for me, whereas some others might start with a person they’re interested in and write a biography or something like that. But I started with a dynamic that I wanted to explore, and then I looked all around the South to find stories that would help open up that [dynamic] for me.

Would you say you were trying to fill in a “historical gap?”

That’s part of it, though I don’t think it’s enough to just fill in a gap because there are millions of gaps, but they don’t all necessarily justify books. So to me, I felt like filling in that gap had to help me to answer some larger questions. And what I wanted to know was, basically, what did the Civil Rights Movement change, and what did it leave unchanged? To what extent did it usher in this social or political or cultural revolution, or to what extent did it just sort of come and go?

You look at the white South now [and] it’s still very conservative, … there’s still a huge income gap between whites and Blacks. Still, as [the 2016 presidential] campaign has shown, there is lingering racial and ethnic resentment among a lot of white people. So I wonder: What did this great movement achieve, what didn’t it achieve? And that’s where I thought a lot of books had addressed that on the side of the African-American struggle, but I thought it was also key to take a look at white folks and see to what extent it had gotten through to them and to what extent it hadn’t. I think a good book fills in some knowledge that we didn’t have before. But I think it also explores a question that seems somehow important or exciting, and to me that was an important or exciting question.

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You explained in your talk that hypocrisy can be defined as “a pretense of virtue,” and a hypocrite as “one who pretends to be better than he really is.” What did you find were some of the causes of this blatant cognitive dissonance among white Northerners who claimed to be progressive while battling to uphold racist institutions?

When talking about white Northerners, one of the guiding ideas in my recent book was the idea of the “Northern mystique” — how a lot of white Northerners had this notion that the North was better, it was more progressive, it was a place where things were possible. They started from that premise that it was an open society where there were no discrimination laws. … They thought of themselves as generally benevolent and good-willed people, and a lot of them thought that if there were segregated schools or segregated neighborhoods, [then] that was just because African Americans couldn’t afford to buy homes in affluent neighborhoods, and thus their kids wouldn’t be assigned to schools in the affluent neighborhoods. Part of it was a sort of blindness to facts, part of it was a willful ignorance — we talked last night about the federal housing practices and mortgage practices that actually consigned Black people to those neighborhoods. I think a lot of white Northerners wanted to continue to believe that they were enlightened, and they didn’t want to deal with the more complex and uglier facts of their own homeland. And they didn’t want to deal with their own racism. I mean, let’s face it, a lot of them didn’t want their kids to go to school with Black kids, a lot of them didn’t want to live in integrated neighborhoods, and there was nothing progressive about that. Your question as to why they didn’t see it? It’s hard to say, but I think part of it was this core belief that their region was free and open, and starting with that core belief they really thought that they were somehow virtuous. But I think my book shows that a lot of it was the pretense of virtue and not actual virtue.

People who are looking to exonerate themselves from accusations of racism often say that they are “colorblind,” or that they don’t see race. Why is this mindset harmful?

This claim to colorblindness — so many people claimed that throughout the Civil Rights Period that I studied, and so many people still claim that. And they hold up, as the example, President Obama. [They say,] “You know, we’re a colorblind nation, a white-majority nation [that] could elect and re-elect a black president.” Chief Justice Roberts cited that as a reason for striking down part of the Voting Rights Act: that our country has advanced since 1965.

In some ways that’s obviously true — we wouldn’t have elected a Black president in 1965 — but in a lot of other important ways it’s false and it’s damaging, and the reason is because our cities are defined by race, they’re shaped by race. Go to any city, North or South, everyone there knows the neighborhoods where white people live, they know the neighborhoods where racial minorities live. … Those public schools that the racial minorities attend are usually less well funded, worse, crime is higher and incidents of police brutality are higher. And so to say that “we are colorblind” just pretends that our country isn’t defined by race, and I think if you claim you’re colorblind, then you’re dealing with some other theoretical situation. So I think what Robert Carter was saying — that you can’t be colorblind in a city where color already affects everything — you have to deal with that. Coming up with a colorblind solution fails to deal with what’s at the root of the problem.

Now that part of the Voting Rights Act has been overturned, is legislation being passed with the intention of preventing minorities from voting?

Oh, definitely. There’s a prominent case going on in North Carolina. The recent Supreme Court decision applied to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, [which] said that all of the states with histories of racial discrimination and Black disenfranchisement, that those states, if they wanted to make any change to their voting laws, had to get pre-clearance — that is authorization from the Justice Department — to do that before passing those laws.

Section 5 is struck down, so they don’t have to get pre-clearance, and so what you find now is states like Texas, North Carolina — states that did have long histories of black disenfranchisement — those Republican-controlled legislatures simply passed laws that make it harder for people to vote. And it’s statistically shown that people who are affected by those laws are African Americans and Latinos, disproportionately. So the legislatures can go ahead and pass those laws now.

Other organizations, NAACP and whoever else, can file lawsuits, but now the burden of proof is on them because the states can go ahead and do what they want, and now they can battle it out as to whether the law is constitutional or not. Well, before that they couldn’t have passed those laws in the first place. And I think it’s also clear that these laws are passed by Republican-controlled legislatures by people who very much know that higher voter turnout often leads to Democratic victories and lower turnout often leads to Republican ones.

In All Eyes Are Upon Us, you researched the racial history of your hometown, Springfield, MA. You talked yesterday about the program during World War II that the public school system implemented, called the Springfield Plan, which was trying to eliminate racism in the school system. How did the plan fail? 

The most obvious way the plan failed was that the plan’s stated goal was to abolish racial prejudice from the city — abolish racial and religious prejudice. And it’s clear that it didn’t. Prejudice still thrived, so in that way it failed. The other way I was talking about is that … World War II was this unique moment in this country’s history where a lot of Americans pressed together, united against the foreign enemy, [against] the hated Nazi enemy. People of all different races and ethnicities and classes did sort of come together to try to ward off Nazism. It was a unique moment of unity, and you needed that kind of spirit and energy in order for people to devote resources and time to something like the Springfield Plan.

So when the war ended, people didn’t have that need to come together anymore. I think of it sort of like a balloon that lost its air at the end of the war, didn’t have anything to rely on anymore. [In] Springfield itself, a more conservative administration came in to government after that, and they said they didn’t need the Springfield Plan anymore. That administration argued that the Springfield Plan had worked and that all the kids had in fact absorbed the lessons, but I think it’s clear that prejudice continued to thrive and segregation in schools only worsened.

During World War II, soldiers were still fighting in segregated combat units, right?

There were a few regiments at the very end of the war that were indeed integrated, but racial discrimination wasn’t officially ended in the armed forces until 1948. … That was the whole irony: It was a Jim Crow, segregated army fighting a war against Nazi racism. And African Americans who fought in that war, and African Americans at home, they understood that paradox very obviously. Also, we fought a war against the Nazis and FDR interned Japanese Americans. There are all these racial paradoxes of World War II.

Seeing how the Springfield Plan and others like it failed, does it seem not enough to just change people’s opinions about other races without changing laws and social structures? 

Right, I think it’s clearly not enough because what the law has to do is protect minorities from discrimination and from unjust treatment. Ideally, our laws would ensure a country that’s actually fair and just and doesn’t leave [minorities] to the mercy of public opinion. So you would hope that the white majority is enlightened and tolerant and accepting, but you have to design laws understanding that they probably won’t be. The policies and the laws, I think, need to be there to ensure a more just and fair place.

Ideally you would have change on all different fronts. Ideally you would have white people change their attitudes and also change their laws and their structures, but, you know, Martin Luther King always said something like: It’s true the law can’t make them love me, but it can make it illegal for them to lynch me. And that’s important, that’s what the law is there for. Now also, the famous Southern historian C. Vann Woodward argued that state ways can change folk ways. That is, laws can help to change opinions and attitudes. When the South adopted a law mandating integration, it made it so that whites and Blacks would suddenly have to dine in the same restaurants, and that can change people’s views. So I’m a firm believer in the fact that changing laws and policies can also result in the change of attitudes as well.

Is that because being exposed to the way someone else lives fosters empathy with that person?

I would say so. Historically, the South, in terms of constructing its system of white supremacy — all of these Jim Crow laws separating whites and Blacks, different water fountains, voting booths, everything — part of what that system wanted to do was separate people so they would never interact on equal footing, so that African Americans would always be in subservient positions, so that there never could be a true interracial interaction. Because I think some of those leaders knew that if there were true interracial interactions that maybe people would come to realize that they were all basically humans. I think part of the whole white supremacist setup was trying to make it so African Americans always inhabited this dehumanized sphere.

You talked last night about the battle over busing, particularly in Boston in the ’70s, and how many white legislators, including Joe Biden who was a freshman senator from Delaware, claimed they favored desegregation, but opposed busing as a means to achieve that end. Could you give a brief historical background of the busing issue?

Busing had been used in the Jim Crow south to achieve segregation. Busses would take white kids past the nearest school, which was a Black school, and take them to the white school across town for instance. So busing had long been used by school systems … to achieve segregation. By 1971, the Supreme Court ruled in a case [Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education] that school systems could use busing to achieve racial integration. After that, school systems had that tool available to them.

Now at the same time, Massachusetts had passed a state law in 1965 that had mandated integrated schools in the state, but the city of Boston [still] had rigidly segregated schools [in 1971], and it did nothing to comply with the state law. The leaders of Boston had a full decade to implement any kind of law they wanted to that would help to integrate their schools — they could have done anything, they didn’t have to bus students. They could have redistricted or rezoned, or allowed Black students in segregated schools to go to other schools. Instead, they did none of that, and they claimed the city was never going to integrate. That’s why Black parents finally filed a lawsuit in 1972 [Morgan v. Hennigan] asking for the courts to order to mandate integration. The NAACP litigated that suit, and in 1974 the federal district court judge ruled that Boston had indeed, the city leaders had indeed, intentionally segregated the schools — therefore they would have to have immediate integration — and he thought the best way to immediately achieve integration was to put kids on buses. Black kids into the white neighborhood and white kids into the Black neighborhood, that’s what happened September of ’74.

Does it seem like one more of those historical ironies that now Joe Biden, who was so against busing, is now vice president to the first African American president, Barack Obama?

To me, that’s a great irony. I wrote an article in Politico all about Biden as an anti-busing leader, and a lot of that’s not in the book because it’s about Delaware politics. Biden was basically a liberal, he had a liberal voting record, he supported school desegregation, but in Wilmington, DE, it became apparent that the local leaders and district courts were going to maybe order busing to come to Wilmington. And white people went crazy. Biden had won his senate election saying he was all for school integration, but then when it came to the issue of busing he moved quickly against it, because he was getting booed out of gymnasiums, he was getting jeered, he was getting hateful letters, … basically, white people saw busing as an apocalyptic solution. They thought their kids were going to be bussed across town into Black schools, and they blamed liberal leaders like Biden for it. So Biden, being a savvy politician, moved quickly against it. And he offered amendment after amendment on the senate floor to try to strike down the ability of leaders and legislators to use busing.

You called New York City a “bloody canvas of racial violence” in the 1980s. Was there a specific issue that spurred that violence, like there was in the ’70s in Boston?

There wasn’t one thing necessarily, but New York City in the 1970s was on the verge of bankruptcy. And there is a famous episode in which President Gerald Ford decided not to bail out the city economically. New York City in the ’70s was a very different place; it was in dire economic straits. In the mid-1980s, you started to get the AIDS epidemic. You later had the crack epidemic. Ronald Reagan’s policies during the ’80s, he cut back all sorts of funding on social programs like food stamps. He also slashed funding for cities like New York. So all these things were happening. The infrastructure of New York was being decimated, and you saw many more homeless people, and you also had this influx of racial minorities into the city. Places in Brooklyn and Queens had long been sort of lower class white, working-class neighborhoods, and they became integrated. And a lot of the white people got scared. It was this combination of economic hard times with increasing racial change. And presiding over it all was Mayor Ed Koch, who had a history as supporting Civil Rights, but he also played to the votes and the fears of the white working class in New York. That’s what set the context for what happened in the ’80s.

You said that you ended All Eyes Are Upon Us on an optimistic note, but added that if you had extended your analysis one or two years further, your tone would have changed. Have we regressed in the last two years?

American history, in terms of race, we know that it’s not a story of linear progress toward freedom. Slaves went free in 1865; during reconstruction in the 1860s and ’70s Black people held office, [and] there was some measure of interracial democracy in the South, and then it all went backward with Jim Crow lynching. And then it accelerated forward again with the Civil Rights Movement. And then [durng the] Reagan years it probably went backward. There is this story of lurching one way or the other.

It’s also probably unfair to generalize about all of America in any of these time periods. In any time period you can find places of regression and backlash, and places that seem to be progressive even at the bleakest moments, or awful even at the ones most hopeful. So what I try to get across is that this tangled history, this complex truth, is the one that best describes the racial history of America. Our history is not a history of a move toward freedom, it’s not a history of complete racism, it’s this one where we have the two things — and I think they’re constantly warring — but at different moments you can sometimes see one of the traditions poke out to the surface. During the busing crisis you could see that horrific tradition of racial violence sort of carrying the day.

So what I’m saying is that I ended my book on a hopeful note with Obama being re-elected, and I felt that maybe that progressive side was poised for a resurgence, and now, yes, I do think we’ve regressed. With the spate of police killings I think it’s clear that America seems to have gone backward. Of course, African Americans would tell you that’s how it’s always been, it’s just that it took a few famous killings to bring the issue to light. So maybe it’s no different or no worse than it’s been for decades, it’s just that killings of unarmed Black men are finally becoming front-page news.

Then I think there are many glimmers of hope: a sustained movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, I mean that’s hopeful that there are activists in the streets pushing the issue, it’s hopeful that there seems to be a bipartisan consensus on ending some of the policies that led to mass incarcerations. I think we’re always living with a tangled set of truths, and yes, we have to sift through as best we can and figure out what would be the way forward at that moment.

Are there any historical lessons we can take to help bridge the gap between the idea of what America ought to be, and the reality we’re faced with today?

That’s the question, isn’t it? I mean, there are a few things. Unfortunately a lot of the answer rests with white Americans. From that perspective, things don’t look too hopeful — the fact that Donald Trump just won 34 percent in New Hampshire means that you have a good number of Americans who are open to racist appeals still.

I think the continuing Black struggle is extremely important. … I was the keynote speaker at a Black church in Massachusetts on Martin Luther King Day, and the guy who spoke before me was the local state representative. He got up and he claimed that if Martin Luther King were still alive, he would denounce Black Lives Matter and he would claim that all lives matter. And then [the representative] went on to say that we’re a country that’s all free and equal now, with a Black president, and we should celebrate that instead of denouncing the country. And I think this is a problem that many white Americans believe that — indeed, a state representative in a liberal state, Massachusetts. And I said I think the first thing white Americans have to understand is that no, it’s not free and equal. And the gentleman in the crowd was talking about the legacy of unjust housing practices, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book [Between the World and Me], which I know a lot of the Oberlin community has been reading, is a primer on why something like reparations makes sense. So I think until white Americans are honestly willing to grapple with those legacies of historic racism, I’m not sure how far we’ll go.

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