‘Origins of the Urban Crisis’ author Thomas Sugrue

By Diego Ruiz

Origins of the Urban Crisis author and University of Pennsylvania historian Thomas Sugrue spoke to over 100 at a lecture in John B. Davis on March 2nd titled “The Education of Barack Obama: Race and Politics in the Age of Fracture.” In an interview with The Mac Weekly before his address, he spoke about how Obama was influenced by the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, the experience of living in segregated Chicago and New York, and how the situation of Detroit has changed, 15 years after publishing Origins. What’s the subject of your talk? I’m going to be speaking about Barack Obama and racial politics over the course of his adult lifetime, in the period from the late 70s up to his election as president. I got interested in writing this book because I published a history of civil rights in the North that came out on November 4th, 2008 [the day of Obama’s election]. In the touring I did after the book was published, I got question after question asking me to put the election of Barack Obama in the context of the history of civil rights. At that time there was a ton of ink spilled on Obama and race, Obama and civil rights, most of it very superficial, and not very rooted in a historical understanding of Obama’s relationship to the significantly changing and complicated racial politics of the last third of the 20th century. We can’t really understand Obama’s development without looking at his relationship to the history and memory of the civil rights movement, his place in the rapidly changing world of black electoral politics, and his urban education, particularly in the two cities that profoundly shaped him, New York, and especially Chicago. It sounds like this is coming more out of your research on civil rights in the North than your work on the decline of urban areas such as Detroit. Definitely, but you’ll see in the talk that it’s also shaped by questions I explored in Origins looking at urban policy, urban politics, and urban inequality. Those are all central issues that animate all the work I do as an academic. Also, in interesting ways they shaped Obama’s own intellectual development. He confronted the urban crisis in New York in the early 1980s, and then he moved to Chicago which was at that time the second most racially segregated city in the United States. And he represented a predominantly African American urban district in the Illinois State Senate, and so his career is very much tied up with the history of urban America, and race in urban America in the last 40 years. From your perspective, what are some of the biggest misconceptions of media accounts of Obama’s first term so far? One of the aspects of Obama’s history that’s really central to him is his commitment to bipartisanship. He’s finally, I think, in the last short time begun to see the limitations of his real commitment to bipartisanship, but it took him a long time, a lot of political struggles and a lot of defeats to realize that this is a paradigm that had some problems. But it’s one that’s very deeply rooted in how Obama thought about race and the so-called culture wars of the 1980s and 90s. It grows out of his own biography, in other words. Some people say Obama’s bipartisanship was just a political ploy, to win over independents and pull together a winning coalition. I disagree with that. I think he very deeply and profoundly believed and probably on many levels still believes in the value of bipartisanship, and he believes that he could use the powers of reason and of carefully marshalled evidence to persuade those who might disagree with him to agree with him or at least come over a little bit in his direction. And that grows out of his experience in the very polarized world of the 1980s and 1990s. One of the many critical moments, maybe the most critical moment for Obama and thinking about bipartisanship, was when he was elected president of the Harvard Law review in 1990s and he was the first African American elected president of the Harvard Law Review. And he won that election by winning the support of liberal and left-leaning students, African American students, folks who believed that he was a leftist, or at least a good liberal. But he also won support of conservative students because he promised them that while they might have disagreements, he would respect them, he would take them seriously and he would bear in mind their concerns when he was editing the law review. And he was very scrupulous as editor of the Harvard Law Review to make sure that different political opinions were represented in its pages. As a young man, as a college student, as a community organizer, one of the goals that Obama had was really trying to overcome fracture by trying to make connections and pull people together that otherwise might not be together. In some ways, he’s always looking to overcome fracture, to overcome division, to overcome fragmentation. It’s a central theme in his entire intellectual and political and personal career. How much of the really virulent opposition to Obama do you think is based around his race? We know for sure that Obama’s staunchest critics, and especially Tea Party critics, are more like to harbor negative sentiments about African Americans than folks who don’t share their political views, but I think it’s also safe to say that many of them don’t distrust or dislike Obama solely or primarily because of his racial identity. And look, conservative critics of Bill Clinton accused him of being a socialist, they accused him of murdering Vince Foster and being involved in all sorts of dubious schemes. The conspiracy theorists that swirled around him were very intense, and they take a different form with Obama. No one accused Bill Clinton of not being American, not being a citizen, being a crypto-Muslim. And that does have very much to do with his identity, the fact that he is the son of someone who came from another country and spent part of his childhood living overseas, and the unusualness of his name. Now, I want to turn to Origins of the Urban Crisis, your book about the post-war decline of Detroit. What’s changed in Detroit since that era? Detroit’s been devastated by the current economic crisis, by the troubles of the auto industry, by the collapse of the housing market, by disinvestment and depopulation. And many of the trends that I wrote about in Origins, going back 50 years, were exacerbated in more recent times. There have been interesting changes, changes that I couldn’t have predicted when I wrote Origins. One is you’re starting to see, in metropolitan Detroit and other areas around the country, is black suburbanization. But black suburbanization does not mean integration . . . many of the communities and the suburbs that African Americans are moving into are being left behind by whites, they’re becoming less desirable and are in the middle of a process of resegregation. But that process of segregation took longer than it took in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Then, a neighborhood would go from being all-black to all-white in a period of three to four years. Now the process extends out over a decade, in some places maybe over 15 to 20 years it’s a slower process. Political boundaries, the boundaries between municipalities and especially the boundaries between school districts, really matter in the allocation and opportunities in Detroit and in so many other parts of the US. How generalizable is the story about Detroit in Origins? How much does this apply to other American cities? I think in the aggregate, Detroit has much in common with other old cities in the industrial Northeast and Midwest. There are differences; no city is identical. Detroit has not been a destination or magnet for new immigration, there are very small immigrant communities there compared to other cities such as Chicago or Newark. So that’s given Detroit’s trajectory a different direction than some of those other cities. On the other hand the experience of African Americans in Chicago, or New York, looks much more like the experience of African Americans in Detroit. There are ways in which Detroit’s patterns, especia
lly involving African Americans, are common to many other metropolitan areas of the United States in our time. refresh –>