Tom Sugrue shifts the diagnosis of racial conflict northward. That's an illuminating move: many of today's most crippling forms of discrimination originated in the North—not, that is to say, in pre-industrial slavery and Jim Crow laws. Most professional critics of racism are implicated in the modern racial policies, along with everybody else. Sugrue's other moves are less adventurous. His thorough though safely conventional narrative glorifies selected strains of activism that have been in fashion in elite universities since the baby boomers took over. Like most of the profession, Sugrue views racism through the lens of its inseparable twin, antiracist resistance. He pays lip-service to the ivory-tower dogma that grassroots determine the course of history. But his sources do extraordinary deeds, often with full-time persistence—more like taproots or roto-tillers than grassroots. Fortunately, Sugrue acknowledges (more than most scholars) the diversity among African American strategies for freedom. Unfortunately, he often echoes the judgment of the sensationalist media and the paranoid FBI: that the most bombastic talkers—those who spoke of armed insurrection—are the most significant activists. Sugrue scrupulously grants that his favored “radicals” and “militants” did not represent the majority of black America. His treatment is fortunately less skewed in their direction than is typical. Still he often gives short shrift to the quieter (and in the l960s more mature) activists, who may have accomplished more than those who bask in journalistic and academic ink. Worse, Sugrue passes up the opportunity to question the academy's comforting notion that radicalism and militancy boil down to stated intentions, rather than tangible accomplishments.

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