Jonathan Sokol's

There Goes My Everything

There must be thousands of quotations in Jason Sokol's There Goes My Everything, but the one that stands out for me more brilliantly than all the others is a remark made by Anthony Dunbar, in a 1969 report on planters compiled for the Southern Regional Council.

A point perhaps not yet overstated is that when people spend their lives depending upon others, the 'others' do not feel like oppressors; they feel paternalistic.

As horrid as slavery was, it overlay another relationship that has proven to be far more persistent. Structural social dependence certainly plays an important role in our affairs, for, without it, the very young and the very old would wither and expire. But we tend to overdo it. Our outlook inclines toward the feudal. We're unwilling to take care of others unless they're prepared to do something in return, even if that something is no more substantial than maintaining a habit of deference. We create dependencies, by disenfranchising groups thought to be inferior. Two centuries of experience with democracy has only begun to show us how pervasive our paternalism is, toward both women and minorities.* Amazingly, we still expect our dependents to be grateful.

There Goes My Everything is an expansive tour of the most notorious variety of American paternalism, and how it contracted, like a very large balloon punctured by a very small pinhole, in the wake of the struggle for civil rights for African Americans that began soon after World War II. Whether or not that struggle has been resolved is a matter of semantics. Strictly speaking, the bars to electoral participation that kept African Americans out of politics from Reconstruction on are simply illegal, as are many forms of discrimination. To say that blacks have achieved equality with whites, however, would be the remark of a simpleton. Mr Sokol's study does not capture a completed process, but it follows exhaustively the course of a necessary first step. The book's importance cannot be overstated. There Goes My Everything is a mirror into which every white American must look very closely.

In his introduction, Mr Sokol argues persuasively that his chosen field has been neglected by historians.

But overall, an insistent focus on powerful citizens such as political leaders and newspaper editors renders barely visible the populace that buys the papers, and casts the votes. Moreover, the literature on the South during this era privileges the dramatic demonstrations and famous battles of the civil rights movement, often at the expense of analyzing the very realm that those struggles sought to change southern life, black as well as white.

But the contribution of There Goes My Everything transcends the academic importance of filling in scholarly lacunae. Although Mr Sokol has reasonably confined his study to the experiences of white southerners, intelligent white readers from other parts of the country will quickly grasp that the essence of the "racism" and the paternalism that are described on every page is not peculiar to the South. No part of the United States is unmarked by discrimination against those of non-Anglo-Saxon background whether Jewish, Native American, Irish or even Gypsy, just to name four. Until the Eisenhower era at the earliest, every municipality in the country was effectively governed by the white folks who "lived on the hill." It only recently ceased to be impolite to note the inconsistency of pervasive discrimination with stated democratic and egalitarian ideals; for generations, Americans inhabited two distinct mental spheres, such that habits of mind that were paternalistic at best in one sphere were invisible in the other the sphere of public discourse. The children of privileged Americans (who in the course of things would become privileged Americans themselves) have for two centuries at least learned to accommodate practical discrimination and singing about "the land of the free."

As Anthony Dunbar's remark testifies, oppressors usually don't see themselves as such. They see themselves, rather, as upholders of public order and as dispensers of private benefits. They stand between less fortunate people and a world of chaos and want. That is why even southerners who felt that Jim Crow laws were wrongful and that, at some point, segregation would have to come to an end even these southerners were outraged when blacks took it upon themselves to initiate the inevitable.

Before civil rights struggles hit their town, many believed that race relations were good, that blacks were content with segregation, that white southerners understood African-Americans and knew what was best for them, and that their love across the color line was returned. Whites were shocked when African-Americans rose up in defiance in the 1960s. Black rebellion clashed so sharply with white perceptions that many disbelieved their own eyes. In turn, white southerners insisted the struggles that hit their towns were the brainchild of distant enemies of communists, the NAACP, or northern liberals.  "Their Negroes" were happy, many reasoned; and in the 1960s, they had become the dupes of "outside agitators." The claims of bewildered whites collided with the reality of organized blacks, who exploded the myth that they were anyone's Negroes, or that they ever had been.

Mr Sokol draws on an immense array of sources, many of them "oral" in character, to support his text. Having covered the state of play at the outset, he proceeds to focus on the two most contentious arenas of the fight for civil rights, education and public accommodation. These are followed by a lengthy chapter on the course of political change, beginning with resistance to such confrontations as the Selma Marches and the gingerly rapprochement extended by beleaguered whites faute de mieux, the transformation of the South into a Republic Party bailiwick, and the economic fallout of what we might call de-paternalization which, as a sad but wise mind might expect, increased the hardship of black life in rural areas. Every page is studded with the quoted remarks of participants and observers people, mostly white people, actually on the ground during the struggle. A few are obviously admirable; fewer are wickedly bigoted. Most are confused, bewildered by the disappointment of expectations that they were unaware of having.

The final chapter, "The Price of Liberation," is not so much a finale as a new introduction to the next stage of freedom. The whites of 2000 are only marginally less ambivalent about black equality than their forebears of 1945.

Many southerners in the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond had lived through the most important social changes in twentieth-century America. It was now undeniable that African-Americans desired continued progress toward economic equality, political power, and social and cultural freedom. But questions still lingered about the nature of white southerners' desires. Some embraced the advances of blacks; most preferred to forget a past that still dogged them. It was easier not to remember the violence, the marches, the dislocations. Life was more comfortable if one did not always recall the time he started addressing blacks with courtesy titles, the autumn his daughter attended school with a black girl, or the November day he saw a black name printed on the ballot. Most white southerners preferred to ignore the reality of this everyday revolution. 

And that's where we are now only not just in the South. If There Goes My Everything has a flaw, it is a very understandable one. It is difficult to study the history of a thing while acknowledging the transformation of that thing into some other thing. The "civil rights" struggle is probably best regarded as over, if only as a way of clearing the terms of the discussion. White resistance to this struggle has gone far beyond any argument that blacks might have with whites, and become both more subtle and more widely economic in nature. The growth of Christian evangelism in the South may easily be seen as a gesture of withdrawal not just from confrontation with blacks but also from engagement with cosmopolitan Americans of any background. And at the same time, the withdrawal in all parts of the country of affluent Americans into gated communities constitutes an enormous setback for public spirit. Having been forbidden to play their paternalistic game in public, the patriarchs have retired to private life, where, if their ideas can no longer poison civic development, they can mutate freely. Blocking that luxuriance calls not for fighting but for persuasion, and Jason Sokol is to be roundly commended for having taught us how difficult it is going to be to master the language that we need. (December 2007) 

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