Public Thinker: Thomas J. Sugrue on History’s Hard Lessons

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
From producing towering classics in the field of urban history to penning ...

From producing towering classics in the field of urban history to penning editorials and essays for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and the London Review of Books, among other venues, Thomas J. Sugrue has found ways to communicate the nuances of urban life, civil rights, race, and economics to a wide audience. He is a professor of social and cultural analysis and history at New York University, where he directs the NYU Collaborative on Global Urbanism. Destin Jenkins, whose work centers on urban studies, race, and capitalism, spoke with Sugrue for Public Books about why he became a public thinker, the relationship between race and class, and his work in light of new histories of capitalism.


Destin Jenkins (DJ): How did you initially approach the story of postwar Detroit?


Thomas J. Sugrue (TJS): I began as an economic determinist. That is, I wanted to write about work and housing, but I hypothesized that work, labor, and industry were the driving factors in the transformation of Detroit and other cities like it. Housing and the city’s neighborhood racial politics would follow. When I began doing my research, it very quickly became clear to me that drawing an artificial line between race and class or between work and neighborhood made no sense. The two needed to be understood as mutually constitutive. To pull them apart would do injustice to the way the political economy worked in post–World War II America.

I would consider myself a historian of capitalism before the field was named. When I looked to Detroit, I saw a racialized economy of work and investment, as well as a racialized economy of home finance, of property ownership, and of land ownership. The story of post–World War II cities is one of racial capitalism, or racialized capitalism.


DJ: Can you give us an example of how race and class are intertwined, and of how that interconnection shapes and is shaped by capitalism?


TJS: I began thinking mainly in terms of class. Deindustrialization and disinvestment had devastating consequences for workers, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

If you were black or white and had a job in a steel mill in Chicago’s South Side, or if you worked in the Ford River Rouge plant, you saw your economic circumstances profoundly restricted by the collapse of the industrial economy that began in the post–World War II years. But it quickly became clear that the folks most affected by deindustrialization were people of color.

African Americans were disproportionately affected because they arrived in large numbers in the city at the very time that the urban economy was profoundly changing. We can’t understand racial inequality without thinking about the reordering of postwar capitalism.


See How The City Divides Us

By Sam Holleran

DJ: Could you tell us about the existing accounts of race and class at the time that you began writing The Origins of the Urban Crisis (1996)? How similar were the conversations surrounding the relationship between race and class to those of our current moment, a moment in which identity politics is pitted against class struggle, where to discuss class is somehow read as minimizing the significance of race?


TJS: I was writing in a moment when a wide range of intellectuals made the case for the analytic separation of race and class. Some scholars coming out of the black radical movements of the late 1960s argued that race shapes, determines, and really drives the process of historical inequality and injustice in the United States. Others, coming from a Marxist or Marxian tradition, believed in the primacy of class and saw race as epiphenomenal. Middle-of-the-road sociologists and economists downplayed the persistence of racial inequities.

Most notably, William Julius Wilson argued that we needed to turn our attention to class inequalities because the “post–civil rights” era was marked by the declining significance of racial difference. Wilson made a case that as African Americans moved into ostensibly racially integrated middle-class neighborhoods, a so-called underclass was left behind, disproportionately affected by deindustrialization and urban disinvestment. For all of their differences, black radicals, Marxists, and liberals all essentially reached the same conclusion: race and class are different.



DJ: You mentioned the limitations of some of the dominant interpretations of racial and class inequality, but were there some notable exceptions to the race versus class dichotomy?


TJS: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, scholars attempted to explore the phenomenon that they then called ghettoization. They were concerned with how race and racial difference are inscribed on the geography of metropolitan areas. But most of those scholars were not fundamentally interested in the economics of that process. In his brilliant book, Making the Second Ghetto (1983), which built on the ghettoization school but also moved beyond it, Arnold Hirsch hinted at the importance of economic interests in real estate and property in creating segregation. But he was definitely not a historian of capitalism. He didn’t focus on the city’s economy.


DJ: Where’s racial ideology in all of this? Because in this account we have racial discrimination, we have racially discriminatory laws and housing policies, and we have the profitability of racial inequality. Do you see racial ideology as external to all this, or is it also a guiding force of sorts for mid-20th-century racial capitalism? And is there also a kind of biological racism operating in mid-20th-century Detroit?


TJS: I didn’t discuss biological racism or notions of the black body in Origins. But employers made assumptions about the black body that were strikingly similar—not coincidentally—to arguments made about people of African descent working in tropical conditions.

Racist frameworks about the black body deeply informed the allocation of jobs, corporate decisions, and management decisions about where African Americans could and should work. Employers clung to the notion that African Americans were more tolerant of miserable working conditions than whites. Well yes, they were more tolerant, but not because of some biological predisposition, but because if you want a job that’s going to give you security and decent pay, you take what’s offered to you. If that means working in a miserable job in the foundry, you work in a foundry.


“Detroit Is No Dry Bones”: Photos of a...

By Camilo José Vergara

DJ: But if Origins is a story of racial capitalism, how should scholars write, or narrate, the history of racial capitalism? One way might be to go back to Thomas Holt—in The Problem of Race in the Twenty-First Century (2000)—and his pre-Fordist, Fordist, and post-Fordist periodization of capitalism.

If the plantation was the quintessential site of capital extraction from racialized bodies under pre-Fordist capitalism, then resistance took the form of mobility. Likewise, mass production and consumption, the sine qua non of Fordist capitalism, conditioned and was vulnerable to resistance in the form of strikes and boycotts that might disrupt the production and consumption of goods. How, in other words, to make sense of continuities and ruptures?


TJS: I think that Holt’s framework is a really smart way of thinking about race and capitalism. I share his view that racial ideologies are not timeless and unchanging, even if they are persistent. As a historian it is important to be attentive to continuities. The past weighs heavily on the present. It shapes and constrains people’s choices and limits their opportunities. But we can’t let an emphasis on continuity obscure the important shifts, moments of rupture, moments of possibility, moments of transformation.

Those discontinuities are as much the result of activism and agency as they are of structure. I moved from writing about structural-economic and racial inequality, in Origins, to uncovering the history of the black freedom struggle in the North, in my book Sweet Land of Liberty (2008). Civil rights activists, African American activists, and labor activists worked, often against the odds, against continuity. They fought to undermine the economic structures, the racial constructions, and the political institutions that created, maintained, and reinforced racial inequality.


DJ: Where does black capitalism fit within the long civil rights movement of the North? Is there a substantive difference between the right to own property, the right to the suburbs, and the right to economic self-determination?


TJS: I think it’s important to talk about African American freedom struggles, in the plural. There are different strands, not all of them compatible with each other. The relation of race and capitalism is a good example. One deep, powerful current dates back to the 1920s and strengthened in the Depression, when advocates of racial equality argued that we needed to challenge American capitalism itself. To improve the conditions of African Americans in the workplace required fair employment and full employment. It required undermining racial discrimination, but, at the same time, also expanding the rights of all workers, including improving working conditions, raising wages, and changing power dynamics on the shop floor. So many activists did not see fighting against discrimination and for full employment as separate or incompatible. They argued that we need to work on both simultaneously.


DJ: A. Philip Randolph’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and his challenging of the private property right to humiliate and discriminate, seems illustrative. Would you agree?


TJS: Definitely. We also have to consider activists to Randolph’s left. Many CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) unions were politically, strategically, and economically interracial. Some left-labor activists promoted the “black and white, unite and fight” position that grew out of their realization that employers could pit the interest of African American workers against white workers. They argued that to bring about a more equal and just economic system required opening up opportunities for workers across racial lines. But that doesn’t mean somehow pretending that discrimination isn’t an ongoing problem. In other words, they believed that race and class were fundamentally intertwined.


Black Banks Can’t Fix Racial Capitalism

By Guy Emerson Mount

DJ: So you have a strand of politics that challenges racial capitalism by demanding full employment and worker security, which effectively undermine the rights of capital to dictate the terms of labor. Is this the same as economic self-determination?


TJS: Self-determination was another important current that ran through the 20th century. A different set of activists made the case that African Americans should challenge the white domination of the American economy by starting their own businesses, owning their own property, and keeping money and investment within the community rather than seeing it dispersed. The wonderfully named Booker T. Washington Business Associations that sprung up in cities before the Second World War advocated black self-help through the creation of black-run businesses. They assumed that African American business owners would somehow be less exploitative than their white counterparts.

By the 1950s and 1960s, calls for black capitalism sometimes took a more radical form: black capitalism as a form of self-determination. It would allow people to shake off the yoke of colonialism and take control of their own territory and destiny. In the language of the post-1960s period, black capitalism could be a tool for empowerment.


DJ: Black capitalism as radical—there’s a thought. Does black capitalism or references to a black bourgeoisie flatten the complexities of this strand of politics?


TJS: I wrote about middle-class African Americans in Detroit’s Conant Gardens in the postwar years who tried to escape working-class neighborhoods and distance themselves from blacks of a lower socioeconomic background. The whole notion of being included in the American dream of home ownership was really important to them. Middle-class activists believed that as they advanced economically, they should own property that reflected their status. They demanded access to conventional home financing that whites had access to. They aspired to profit from the purchase and sale of property in ways that many whites took for granted.

One of the areas of opportunity for black investors—Nathan Connolly writes especially brilliantly about this—was buying and selling properties on the margins of the racially divided housing market. There was a lot of money to be made on the margins. Many black investors and real estate brokers appealed to African Americans’ desire to have quality housing and to own their own homes. Other investors took advantage of the space left empty by white real estate brokers, lenders, and landlords who were unwilling to cater to an African American clientele.

When whites panicked and fled, investors could buy houses at low prices and sell or rent at high prices to African Americans eager to live in neighborhoods with better housing and public amenities. There were some very enterprising folks who realized that there was good money to be made by exploiting racial inequalities.


DJ: We could talk shop all day. How and why did you decide to communicate this history with the public?


TJS: Throughout my career, I have chosen topics that have contemporary relevance. I don’t see a bright line between past and present. When I was in graduate school, one of the harshest criticisms you could level against a historian was that he or she was a presentist. Somehow our historical scholarship would be compromised by our engagement with the world that we live in now. I’ve never found this argument to be persuasive. It’s a fallacy to see the present as somehow uprooted from history. The opportunities and constraints that we experience in the here and now are the result of historical processes.

I also don’t draw a bright line between scholarly work and public advocacy. I think those of us who have the skills to write clearly should exercise those skills. We should try to reach beyond a couple hundred specialists in our scholarly subfields.


DJ: You said there’s no bright line between scholarly work and public advocacy, but is the process different? Is the process of writing an article or book chapter different from writing op-eds? Walk us through the mechanics.


American Perceptions of Class

By Matt Wray

TJS: When you write an op-ed for the New York Times or the Washington Post, you might have 750 or 800 words. You have to take a lot of complex material and boil it down to its essence. That requires making really hard choices about what’s in and what’s out. We historians love detail. We love the specifics, but when you’re writing short, popular pieces, you’ve got to let a lot of that detail fall by the wayside.

Some would say that it’s dangerous to simplify complex arguments, but I think it can be done well. The key is to be faithful to the substance of your argument even if you’re leaving a lot of the evidence out. Readers who want to know more can find my articles online or go to their local library or bookstore and pick up a copy of one of my books.


DJ: What have been some of the other ways you’ve shown up as a public thinker?


TJS: I have been asked to be an expert witness in a number of civil rights cases. That requires another type of writing. I’m an archive hound. I’m really rigorous. I try to leave no statement that I make in a book or a scholarly article unsupported. I try to turn over every last stone. The burden of proof, already high, is even greater when you are engaged in research for a legal case, because your work is going to be used in an adversarial process. I go through every word, every footnote, and make sure everything is absolutely precise. I know my work is going to be subjected to close scrutiny by lawyers who want to demolish my credibility.

Another way in which I engage different audiences is through public speaking. I’ve given hundreds of talks and workshops and lectures, not only at colleges and universities, but also to community organizations, museums, religious congregations, and foundations. I once even gave a keynote at a chamber of commerce event, because that audience needed to be exposed, more than most, to scholarship on race and inequality. I speak to people who agree with me, but also to people who don’t.

We have to get out the word by any means necessary, to coin a phrase. For me that means speaking to activists who are trying to improve life in their neighborhoods, in Philadelphia or Cleveland or Detroit. It means speaking to philanthropists who are going to set the agenda for urban redevelopment or public education policies. It means speaking to students whose only exposure to the history of civil rights in the North might be that one time that they hear me. It means speaking to grassroots activists who have a lot to learn from understanding how their counterparts 20 years ago, 50 years ago, or 75 years ago dealt with similar struggles. Our scholarship can be a resource for many different types of people.


How Prisons Serve Capitalism

By Dan Berger

DJ: What are some of the rewards and challenges of writing as a historian and engaging with a wider public?


TJS: Policymakers, politicians, and pundits think historically all the time, but usually not very well. They fall back on simple historical analogies. Op-ed pages are filled with superficial lessons from the past. We historians who are grappling with contemporary issues have the responsibility to help policymakers and the general public get the history right.

I want to emphasize that our public engagement has to be rooted in really serious scholarship. There are plenty of professional historians who are happy to turn their work into propaganda. I resist that.

I’m going to tell it like it is. If the way I tell it doesn’t make people happy, so be it. I don’t believe in contorting or distorting the findings of my scholarship to fit my contemporary political positions. We have to be responsible to the past on its own terms, not according to what we wish had been the case. A lot of scholars romanticize the past in their scholarship. We need to push back against that. Whitewashing or romanticizing the past is a problematic way to envision the present. We need more than inspiration from heroic struggles in the past. We must also heed lessons learned from disastrous failures and incomplete victories.

We need to understand not just the ways in which individuals stood up and resisted the status quo, but also the ways in which individuals were rolled over by the status quo, had their options constrained and limited by the political economy or by the institutions of which they were a part. And if we ignore one at the price of the other, then we’re distorting the past, at the risk of failing to develop effective strategies for how to move forward today.

This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

Featured image: Thomas J. Sugrue delivers a lecture in Detroit sponsored by the Institute for New Economic Thinking (2017). Full video available here.