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Was Nov. 4 The End Of Racial History?

A recent review of Tom Sugrue's Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North in the New York Observer makes a startling accusation. Sugrue, argues critic Jonathan Liu, plods through decades of racial conflict and uneven progress without ever considering “the potential and potency of a single transformative racial moment … Sweet Land of Liberty will forever be the last major work on race relations published before the astounding uplift of The Change.”

That change, needless to say, is the election of Barack Obama as the nation's first black president. Liu thus joins a growing number of voices--I can only speak anecdotally, from conversations and disparate readings, but there have been so many I've stopped counting--eager to proclaim Nov. 4 as the end of racial history in America. The idea that racism has ended with Obama's election is patently absurd, and many readers will accuse me of constructing a straw man in suggesting it even exists. Yet I am also sure that many readers have heard the same themselves--if not shared the thought.

I should be open, at this point, about my relationship with Sugrue: He has been a huge influence on my own work, both intellectually and personally; he blurbed my forthcoming book on the aftermath of the King assassination, and my journal, Democracy, will be reviewing Sweet Land of Liberty in our spring issue. All of which just underlines what is already obvious: I believe that, rather than rendering it anachronistic, Obama's election makes work like Sugrue's--and, if I may be so bold, my own--all the more relevant.

History is as much about continuity as change, and the enduring lesson of American racial history is that milestones are often taken as excuses for continuing inequities. Well-meaning Americans may want to racial equality, but they also want racial exculpation. They find it in milestones. The months after the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed saw a sharp uptick in the number of white poll respondents who said blacks had now won equality and should be less aggressive in pressing for further change. What followed was decades of backsliding on economic and social progress: The last four decades, as sociologist Orlando Patterson points out, have been marked by paradoxical progress, toward both greater public equality and private inequality--we as a country are more comfortable with the idea of racial parity, even as we accept the increasingly harsh realities of residential, economic, and educational segregation. Complacency and resentment weren’t the causes, but they’re not insignificant, either.

Don't get me wrong--America has made amazing progress over the last half-century, progress few countries could dream of achieving. And Obama's election is certainly a milestone. But it is also an easy blinder: A black man in the White House does nothing to change the immediate realities of a poor black man living in Southeast Washington. Reading Sugrue--and any other civil rights history, for that matter--reminds us that racial progress is real, but not teleological, nor uniform, and that symbolic achievements can easily become excuses for backsliding down the road. 

--Clay Risen