Arc of Justice

Arc of Justice

by

Kevin Boyle

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Arc of Justice: Prologue Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Every day in the summer of 1925, trains carry Black Americans through the cotton fields of the South, the lumber camps of the Southwest, and the coalfields of Appalachia. Along the way, they pass myriad sites where white mobs have lynched Black people.
The American Dream promises economic and social opportunity to hard-working people. In the early years of the 20th century, many Black Southerners travel north as part of the Great Migration to claim their version of the American Dream. Yet, the social realities the country belie this mythology: as white citizens increasingly feel the need to protect their racial purity (and social advantages) with violence, segregation became increasingly entrenched in both custom and law throughout the country.
Themes
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
Justice and Civil Rights Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
Few people break into song when crossing in the North any longer since Northern white people have proven themselves just as capable of racism, terrorism, and violence as Southern white people. But excitement rises as Southern migrants arrive in the industrial hubs and glittering cities of the North. In 1925, cities like New York, Chicago, and Detroit demonstrate the attitude and values of the new century. They have spawned an expansive stock market, sprawling factories, and immense department stores.
The glittering opportunities of the northern cities, with their advanced technologies and huge economies, suggest the ways in which life improves through industrial and social progress. Still, the commonplace nature of segregation and prejudice offer a pointed reminder that progress isn’t guaranteed or smooth.
Themes
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
Progress and Social Change Theme Icon
Late 19th-century immigration turned America’s urban areas into “polyglot” places where immigrants vastly outnumbered “native-born Americans.” In cities, people of varying races, religions, cultures, professional classes, and education levels live side-by-side. The flood of white immigrants from Europe and Black immigrants from the South initially appalled white, native-born Americans. But by the 1920s, some “sophisticated” white people embrace “slum” culture’s speakeasies, jazz clubs, and Vaudeville performances. 
Access to the wealthy American cities doesn’t mean integration or equality for the many newcomers from Southern states and the rest of the world. Even as they enjoy elements of Black culture like jazz music, native-born white citizens maintain separation between themselves and minorities by using pejorative labels like “slums” for neighborhoods where Black residents make up the majority.
Themes
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
Self-Defense, Race, and Ownership Theme Icon
Quotes
The grand architecture and urban clamor of the great cities impresses the Southern immigrants. Some of them meet family members who have already established themselves in the new city.
The cities’ skyscrapers show the dominance of the Northern industrial economies and promise that the 20th century’s progress will improve everyone’s lives. But the reality for newcomers is much harsher.
Themes
Progress and Social Change Theme Icon
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Racism and hatred divide northern American cities in the mid-1920s, even though they lack the formal segregationist policies of the Jim Crow-era South. Beginning in the late 19th century, nativist politicians opposed the so-called “ethnic” influence in politics. Businessmen like Detroit’s Henry Ford, who spread conspiracy theories about Jewish and Bolshevik people, contributed to the nativist chorus. By the 1920s, most nativists are middle-class white people who, having worked hard to achieve a small level of success, resent having to share with foreign “intruders.” Their social and political organizations confirm their exclusionary ideas. And many people—even in the North—join the Ku Klux Klan.
Jim Crow laws (those upholding racial segregation) formally exist only in the South, but nativism and segregation even in northern cities show how social and legal practices work together to keep groups separate. When rights are equal only on paper, not in practice, justice cannot prevail and groups like the Klan flourish both socially and politically. Native-born white people, leaning on ideas of racial purity, want to defend racial purity and preserve their slice of the American Dream.
Themes
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
Justice and Civil Rights Theme Icon
Self-Defense, Race, and Ownership Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
In 1924, the nativists achieve a significant victory in the National Origins Act, which drastically limits immigration. Then they flaunt their power within both parties during that year’s presidential campaign. Still, most white supremacy efforts operate locally, in the form of unwritten rules about what kind of work suits Black or white workers, who can shop at white-owned stores, and where Black people can and can’t live. White people flee to cities’ outskirts and suburbs, increasingly leaving Black people confined in city centers.
The book explores how ideas of self-protection often expand into defense of the group; nativists, fearing that immigrants will undermine the political power and compromise the economic security of native-born citizens, successfully defend themselves by limiting the number of people allowed into the country. And increasing housing and employment segregation shows how social custom alone—even without the force of law—can effectively perpetuate prejudice and segregation.
Themes
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
Self-Defense, Race, and Ownership Theme Icon
Black immigrants from the American South thus head for their new cities’ “ghettos”—the neighborhoods like Harlem in New York City or Black Bottom in Detroit where most Black residents live. Here, they find glittering streets of Black-owned businesses and jazz clubs. They also find warrens of overpriced, overcrowded, and suboptimal housing. But, they know they have few alternatives.
The glittering districts of Black neighborhoods show the promise of the American Dream: people can achieve economic success regardless of their skin color. But the dreadful housing conditions remind newly arrived residents of the limits that legal and social segregation, perpetuated by a nativist elite, place on their prospects.
Themes
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon