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Jason Sokol is praised for his revealing portraits of blacks--and the shell game liberals and conservatives both play

Justice for African Americans is as elusive as the pea in a shell game, where appearances of fairness are so finely spun that they make the victim seem complicit in the exploitation.

Suppose, for example, that you consider a good education your kids’ key to equality. Public education is locally controlled, so it matters where you live. Maybe finding the right location is a better way to ensure justice, but you must get past realtors and landlords who link your skin color to low property values. To reassure them, you’ll need at least a good job and the habits it requires. But to get that job, you need a good education. The shell game comes full circle: Justice is always somewhere else.

White school officials, real-estate brokers, and employers shift the shells, controlling your access to education, housing, and jobs, and if you challenge them politically, they enact voter-identification laws that feign fairness while actually thwarting it.

Even when elections are fair, majority-black districts are too marginal to stop the shell game. Broader, racially mixed publics that elect exemplary black candidates or cheer heroes such as Jackie Robinson, Oprah Winfrey, or Colin Powell don’t seem to stop it, either.

Why? Combing documents, news accounts, letters to the editor, and transcripts of interviews and court testimony, the historian Jason Sokol has been following the shell game’s guises and ironies, first in the South in his 2007 book, There Goes My Everything, and now in the Northeast in All Eyes Are Upon Us. He lets the players speak for themselves instead of foregrounding his own voice and analysis. But his opinions and values do inflect the selection and presentation of his findings in a book that complicates and confounds widely accepted narratives of victory over racism and of racism’s devious resilience.

He wants to show that reality isn’t as “black and white” as either postracialists or die-hard racialists suppose. Actually, he writes, “enlightened racial attitudes could coexist quite easily with racial segregation,” often in the same individuals and in communities speaking out of both sides of their collective mouths. Blacks as well as whites play the racial shell game, and the game seems to play them by trading on their human weaknesses and yearnings. Occasional displays of interracial tolerance and solidarity only reinforce the game by giving its players moral cover and small approximations of justice in selective gestures—exceptions that prove the rule.

In There Goes My Everything, Sokol let both black and white political actors in the gradually desegregating South illumine cultural depths that legal advocates often ignored. He faithfully recorded the bewilderment of once-privileged whites who believed that they had earned the gracious deference of African Americans in the old order. Sokol also recounted how lawyers ignored racial mores that civil-rights activists had to reckon with delicately in devising strategies to replace the old understandings on which many blacks, too, relied. Absent a culture of communication and trust, equality could be almost as empty as the old hierarchies’ perverse intimacies.

Now, in All Eyes Are Upon Us, he shows Northeastern whites, like their Southern counterparts, proclaiming interracial comity by offering enough moral cover to the shell game to make it seem fair. He depicts righteous and self-congratulatory liberal New Yorkers and New Englanders touting interracial solidarity against injustice without actually doing much to end the shell game’s daily ravages—especially if doing so might imperil their interests as much as those of the white ethnics who’d bear the brunt of the costs....

Read entire article at Book Forum