Must Read Book

Sugrue, Tom, Origins of the Urban Crisis (1996).

Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit is an axis to move US history away from several deeply felt mystifications. First, it is a powerful aid in deconstructing the New Deal Coalition. Historians have been doing that for some time, pointing out its refusal to confront race and Jim Crow as the fault line of modern America. But that understanding is stubbornly resisted by scholars seeking to reclaim a supposed “social democratic” moment in the 1940s and 50s. Sugrue surgically disposes of any illusions about the colorblindness of urban, northern,, union-based politics in the citadel of American social democracy, where Reuther’s UAW reigned. Second, Sugrue disposes of the oft-stated thesis (still in many textbooks) that the Black Power movement was an extremist offshoot of civil rights organizing, a product of suddenly rising expectations in “the ghetto.” Though he focuses on the violent, mass, riotous character of “white power,” keeping neighborhoods lily-white in the quarter-century from 1943 on, his rich scholarship combining social history with political economy allows us to see that the 1964-68 urban uprisings were no new beginning, presumably anarchic if not atavistic, but a culmination to systematic de-industrialization and the relentless immiseration of the black working class amid a constant struggle to enforce juridical equality (“open housing”). Finally, few things are more mythologized than the New Right. Journalists and even academics give primary credit to William Rusher, Ayn Rand, William F. Buckley, Albert Jay Nock and sundry other publicists, rather than studying the structural mechanics of class, race and party fissuring that allowed shrewd operatives to build a “new” Republicanism out of chunks of the “old” Democracy. The largest chunk was the Southern Democratic constituency. The other piece of the puzzle, as Goldwater proposed back in 1961, was the so-called “ethnic” vote in the North. Sugrue’s is one of the first books to get at the politics of this heterogeneous class fraction, and show how it moved right long before the supposed excesses of “the Sixties” drove it out of FDR’s party, as Thomas Byrne Edsall would have us believe. In this way, Sugrue demonstrates that the fundamental contradictions of the 1960s and after stem directly from the unresolved struggles of the 1940s.

Recommended by Van Gosse, History Department, Franklin and Marshall College

Van Gosse is the author of Where the Boys Are: Cuba, Cold War America and the Making of a New Left (1993) and numerous articles. He helps edit the Radical History Review, and is working on a book called Black Power in White America: Reconstructing African American Politics in the 20th Century.