031: Matthew D. Lassiter, 36


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

31: Matthew D. Lassiter, 10-2-06

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Associate Professor of History, and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of History, University of Michigan, 2006-
Area of Research: 20th century United States, urban/suburban, political, social, Southern, popular culture
Education: Ph.D., Department of History, University of Virginia, Charlottesville VA, May 1999.
Major Publications: Lassiter is the author of The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton University Press, 2006). Matt Lassiter JPGListed in the Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America series, ed. William Chafe, Gary Gerstle, Linda Gordon, Julian Zelizer.
He is the co-editor of The Moderates’ Dilemma: Massive Resistance to School Desegregation in Virginia (University Press of Virginia, 1998), with Andrew B. Lewis.
He is currently working on the following projects: The Suburban Crisis: The Pursuit and Defense of the American Dream;
The End of Southern History, coedited with Joseph Crespino;
“De Jure/De Facto: The Strange Career of a National Myth,” chapter in The End of Southern History;
Inventing Family Values: The Crisis of the American Dream in the Seventies,” in Bruce Schulman and Julian Zelizer, eds., in Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s (under contract to Harvard University Press).
Awards: Lassiter is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including:
William T. Ludolph, Jr., Junior Faculty Development Award, History Department, University of Michigan, 2003, 2005, 2006;
Patricia Jane Barrett Faculty Research Award, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, University of Michigan, 2004;
National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow, 2001-02;
Faculty Fellowship Enhancement Award, Rackham School of Graduate Studies and Office of the Vice President for Research, University of Michigan, 2001;
Southern History Dissertation Fellowship, University of Virginia, 1995-98;
Class of 1923 Memorial Teaching Award, University of Michigan, 2006. Given annually to recipients among those promoted from assistant professor to associate professor with tenure;
University Undergraduate Teaching Award, Rackham School of Graduate Studies, University of Michigan, 2004-2005. Given annually to two tenure-track faculty for “excellence in teaching at the undergraduate level”;
Golden Apple Award, University of Michigan, 2004 recipient. Given annually to one faculty member by SHOUT (Students Honoring Outstanding University Teaching). Public lecture in acceptance of award: “Alienation, Apathy, and Activism: American Culture and the Depoliticization of Youth,” Jan. 28, 2004.
Additional Info:
Lassiter is the Category Editor, Suburbia Resources, American Political Development—Electronic Classroom, sponsored by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, (2003-present).
He is a referee of book manuscripts for Oxford University Press (6), Duke University Press, University of Virginia Press, Longman Publishers, Arnold Publishers.
He is a referee of article manuscripts: Journal of American History, American Quarterly, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography.
He has made numerous radio appearances on a number of stations including: WFAE (Charlotte, NC), WUNC (Chapel Hill, NC), KUOW (Seattle), WEMU 89.1 (NPR), Michigan Radio (NPR), and Virginia Public Radio.
Lassiter was also the moderator for the Ann Arbor mayoral candidates debate sponsored by the University’s Urban Planning Department (Nov. 2004).

Personal Anecdote

During my second foray onto the job market, I found myself being interviewed for a position in southern history at a certain institution located in a Deep South state. At the time, I was employed as a visiting assistant professor at Bowdoin College in Maine, teaching courses on southern history, the 1960s, and urban/suburban history. Many of my undergraduate students at Bowdoin were from the affluent and overwhelmingly white suburbs outside of Boston, and their stories reminded me a lot of my own upbringing in an affluent and overwhelmingly white suburb located just north of the Atlanta city limits. My recently completed dissertation about civil rights and political transformation in the metropolitan South presented a strong argument against the framework of southern exceptionalism, and it was this thesis that had me in hot water in the interview for a southern history job that I was not even sure I wanted. About three minutes in, I was laying out the claim that political realignment in the South could not be reduced to white backlash against the civil rights movement alone, that the economic rise of the Sunbelt combined with national trends of suburbanization also had played a central role, when a member of the hiring committee cut me off. “You’re wrong,” he said. “I lived through all that, and I know how it happened, and you’re wrong.”

I had never planned to become a southern historian. I came of age during the 1980s, a child of the late Cold War period and a product of the residentially segregated suburbs, living in a booming section of metropolitan Atlanta where everyone seemed to have arrived from somewhere else. If someone had asked me back then about my impression of the civil rights movement, I would have responded the same way as many of the students whom I have taught at Bowdoin College and the University of Michigan: Alabama, Mississippi, Bull Connor, George Wallace, Klan bombings, “I Have a Dream,” from Deep South racism to national triumph. I took several courses in civil rights and southern history when I was an undergraduate, but it wasn’t until I read about the links between residential segregation and public policy in Kenneth Jackson’s book Crabgrass Frontier that I really began to understand the political culture of my suburban youth. When I started graduate school at the University of Virginia, a couple of years after the Berlin Wall came down, my goal was to specialize in diplomatic history, perhaps combined with political history. A combination of superb graduate school mentors and field-specific funding resources sent me down the path of southern history, however, and I decided to write a dissertation about school desegregation that would excavate the roles of the silent moderates singled out for blame by Martin Luther King Jr. in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

I began to research the period of massive resistance to the Brown decision, and I initially wrote ten chapters—more than four hundred pages—about events that ultimately took up fewer than one hundred pages in my recently published book. Even before finishing the dissertation, I completely discarded several chapters about the segregated private school movement in the rural and small-town South, including one that cost me several months in South Carolina archives. In my office here in Ann Arbor, I still have a full box of documents about private schools in Mississippi for a chapter never written at all. If I had a genuine epiphany, it happened one evening when I was looking up the New York Times coverage of the end of massive resistance in Jackson, Mississippi. On p. 29, I saw what I was looking for: “School Day Calm in Jackson: 39 Negro Pupils Enter White Classes—Boycott Fails.” On the front page, I found another headline that I did not expect, “275,638 Pupils Stay Home in Integration Boycott,” about a massive white protest against a minimal busing plan in New York City. Now it occurs to me that the excitement of such a discovery is becoming much less likely as microfilmed newspapers become keyword searchable. But at the time, I wrote in my notes: “Why haven’t I heard about this before? What are we supposed to make of this? How should this change the way we think about southern history?”

I soon recast my dissertation as a study of the grassroots politics produced by residential segregation and suburban sprawl, with close attention to the mobilization of white middle-class homeowners and schoolparents who embraced Richard Nixon’s label of the Silent Majority. I came to believe that cities such as Atlanta and Charlotte should be understood through a national model of suburban politics and metropolitan development, which meant rethinking some of the obsessions of southern history and the blind spots of American history. The two books that I flipped through constantly in writing my own were Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier and Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, each of which has had a much more significant impact on the reintegration of southern and American history than either author probably imagined. The new scholarship on the “long civil rights movement” in the North and West also encouraged my defection from the school of southern exceptionalism, which I believe is central to the “color-blind” mythology of white racial innocence across the nation. And my suburban focus also reflected a personal odyssey, a desire to turn the historical spotlight toward places such as the one in which I grew up in Atlanta, a sense that the popular narrative of racial backlash and political realignment has placed too much blame on working-class whites (South and North) and not enough on the business leaders and white-collar families and government policies that profoundly reshaped the postwar American metropolis.


By Matthew D. Lassiter

  • During the civil rights showdowns of the late 1960s and early 1970s, white-collar families that claimed membership in the Silent Majority rallied around a “color-blind” discourse of suburban innocence that depicted residential segregation as the class-based outcome of meritocratic individualism rather than the unconstitutional product of structural racism. . . .  JPGMillions of white homeowners who had achieved a residentially segregated and federally subsidized version of the American Dream forcefully rejected race-conscious liberalism as an unconstitutional exercise in social engineering and an unprecedented violation of free-market meritocracy. . . . In response to the civil rights offensive against the structural forces of residential segregation, a grassroots suburban backlash rippled upward into national politics and established powerful and lasting constraints on the integrationist agenda of racial liberalism. The political culture of suburban exclusion and middle-class entitlement forged a resilient bipartisan consensus that ultimately exempted most affluent neighborhoods throughout the nation from any collective responsibility for the government programs that simultaneously developed the postwar metropolis and contained the inner-city ghettoes.” — Matthew Lassiter in “The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South”
  • “The meritocratic ethos celebrated throughout America’s upper-middle-class suburbs has always contained two central contradictions: the refusal to acknowledge that any historical forces greater than individual accomplishment shaped the spatial patterns of the metropolitan landscape, and the “neighborhood schools” presumption that children of privilege should receive every advantage of the consumer affluence accumulated by their parents instead of competing on an egalitarian playing field. In the era of the Silent Majority, court-ordered busing evoked intense grassroots opposition precisely because the redistributive policy severed the link between residence and education that white suburban families viewed as the consumer reward of a free-market meritocracy–an essentially inalienable middle-class right secured through individual perseverance and paid for by hard-earned taxes. In this sense, the antibusing protests that revolved around “color-blind” justifications and “reverse discrimination” charges resembled the political and philosophical opposition to affirmative action policies much more than the initial southern resistance to the Brown decision, except that for white suburban families the stakes were far higher than in the emerging debates over racial preferences in employment or college admissions. . . . Two-way integration constituted a frontal assault on the consensus among the white middle class that a nice home in a safe and segregated suburban neighborhood served by quality public schools was critical to living the good life and the key to their children’s futures.” — Matthew Lassiter in “The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South”

About Matthew D. Lassiter

  • “Impressively researched, The Silent Majority brings together valuable and wholly new collections of archival material. Many historians pay lip service to the need to draw connections between the grassroots and the leadership, the local scene and national affairs. Lassiter actually does it. With verve and grace, he presents compelling accounts of grassroots mobilizations in Virginia, South Carolina, and Tennessee, and sensitive, detailed case studies of Atlanta and Charlotte. At the same time, he demonstrates how these local, suburban movements both reshaped national politics.” — Bruce Schulman, Boston University reviewing “The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South”
  • “The Silent Majority stands as a landmark in a new generation of scholarship on the American South. Matthew Lassiter is spot on in his dissection of the myths of de facto segregation, national innocence, and southern distinctiveness. Rejecting a narrative that revolves around individual racism, he shows us how we arrived at our current dilemmas. This book is indispensable reading for anyone seeking to understand how the North and the South have converged around an ‘intractable landscape of racial apartheid’ in which class ideologies and divisions play a central role.” — Jacquelyn Hall, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Director, Southern Oral History Program reviewing “The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South”
  • “Matthew Lassiter persuasively argues in The Silent Majority that the Republicans gained in the South not because of regional racism but because of the meteoric growth of the Sun Belt suburbs, which created a new class of middle-income, socially moderate and fiscally conservative voters.” — Clay Risen, Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewing “The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South”
  • The Silent Majority is a compelling recounting of modern liberalism’s demise and the ascendance of center-right politics. It is based not on Nixonian Southern strategies and stubborn remnants of malign racist thought and deeds, but on the adoption of socially acceptable race-neutral resistance to racial equality, financed by federal initiatives which created white suburbs and encouraged majority black urban cores. This is a breakthough rethinking of established thought, discarding conventional wisdom.” — Julian Bond, Chairman of NAACP reviewing “The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South”
  • “Matt Lassiter offers a major reinterpretation of the transformation of liberalism and the rise of conservatism in the post-1960s South and in America writ large. He shows how white Southerners, like their Northern counterparts, embraced a rhetoric of color-blindness that gave them cover to build a sprawling, suburban world that reinforced racial inequalities. This provocative, pathbreaking book offers a whole new conceptual map for the reappraisal of Southern history and national political history.” — Thomas J. Sugrue, University of Pennsylvania and author of “The Origins of the Urban Crisis” reviewing “The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South”
  • “Matthew Lassiter, assistant professor of history, is pleasantly surprised as he receives the 14th annual Golden Apple Award during class Dec. 4. Members of the group Students Honoring Outstanding University Teaching (SHOUT) selected him as the winner the previous day based on student nominations. The award “honors those teachers who consistently teach each lecture as if it were their last, and strive not only to disseminate knowledge but to inspire and engage students in its pursuit,” says the SHOUT Web site.The nominations for Lassiter say he is dedicated, inspirational and thought-provoking. “Professor Lassiter has inspired me as no person ever has,” one nomination says. Lassiter received the award while giving instructions to students about evaluating his performance in the class. “Don’t let this skew your evaluations,” he told the students.” — Article from “The University Record Online” in honor of Lassiter being awarded the Golden Apple Award
  • “Prof. Lassiter is very engaging and interesting. It’s not an easy class, but the easy classes are never the interesting ones. He obviously works hard to make his classes good, and it shows.”…
    “This class was AMAZING. He was an excellent professor, the class was interesting and brought up new perspectives from which to view this country. This was a fantastic course.”…
    “Lassiter is engaging and excited about what he is teaching. The lectures are amazing- the information is so clear and he infuses them with humor.”…
    “American suburbia was my absolute favorite class at U of M. Do not miss out on this class; it opens your eyes to *so* many things.”…
    “History of Suburbia is an AWESOME class and Lassiter is the one of the best lecturer’s that I’ve had at U-M. He’s younger and his class is really up to date with current trends. Lassiter is way cool.”…
    “He’s one of the best professors at Michigan. American Suburbia was one of the most intense, eye-opening, amazingly rich classes I’ve taken at U of M. I’m proud to be an alum of that course.”…
    “*awesome* professor, *wonderful* class – really makes you think about your environment and get excited about things. He is very interesting to talk to during office hours, and the lectures are fun.” — Anonymous Students

Posted on Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 1:12 PM

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