2012 Reading books links reading reflections

Reading 2012: Sundown Towns

February 8, 2012

Among the books I read in 2011, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II was definitely the most eye-opening book I read regarding American race relations, particularly dealing with the atrocities that were nearly ubiquitous in the post-Reconstruction South. For 2012, even though it’s only early February (this book was part of my January reading), I think Sundown Towns:  A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James W. Loewen will be the book of the year as another eye-opener to an era of America’s racist history.

In Sundown Towns, historian James W. Loewen explores the racial residential segregation that began to take place after the Emancipation, particularly from 1890 to 1920, but which continued to be publicly stated through the late 1990’s (and as an “unspoken rule” in many other towns even until present). Often, signs were posted at the outskirts of town, reading something like:

“Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You In __-town.”

Sometimes sundown towns of the South would advertise their city with something like “Welcome to __-town. No Mosquitoes, No Malaria, No Negroes.” As this began to take place all over the United States (see below), African Americans and other minorities were shoved out of towns and all-white suburbs were formed. By the latter half of the twentieth century, the “Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down” signs had gradually been replaced by more subtle messages of suburbs and real estate regulations which limited the residents to being “white, Protestant, or caucasian,” or similar specifications.

The vast majority of the book explores this trend as it related to African Americans, but also explains that such discrimination was by no means limited to African Americans only. Native Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, Catholic, Polish, and Irish Americans were just a few of the people groups who were singled out to be kept separate from residential clusters of caucasian Protestant Americans.

The book explores all aspects of such towns, including what occasions led to making a town a sundown town, how it was enforced, if it was influenced externally, how it was justified, and the long-term effects of sundown towns (just to name a few).

Asking the question which most readers of the book (or this post) will likely ask, Loewen rhetorically inquires, “How could we Americans have been so ignorant of sundown towns for so long” (194)? Loewen begins his explanation by stating, “our culture teaches us to locate overt racism long ago (in the nineteenth century) or far away (in the South) or to marginalize it as the work of a few crazed deviants” (195). Incidentally, sundown towns are much more prevalent in regions such as Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois than they are in the deep South. (Sundown towns were even as far reaching as Florida, New England, Washington state, and Oregon.) Much of this is because the southern states were more likely to view blacks as a cheap labor source (or free, see Slavery by Another Name), while northern states were more likely to feel threatened by minorities.

Why Is This Important?

“If Amer­i­cans under­stood the ori­gins of over­whelm­ingly white com­mu­ni­ties, they might see that such [all white] neigh­bor­hoods are noth­ing to be proud of. On the con­trary, all this res­i­den­tial exclu­sion is bad for our nation. In fact, residential seg­re­ga­tion is one rea­son race con­tin­ues to be such a prob­lem in Amer­ica. But race really isn’t the prob­lem. Exclu­sion is the prob­lem. The ghetto—with all its pathologies—isn’t the prob­lem; the elite sun­down suburb—seemingly devoid of social difficulties—is the problem. As soon as we real­ize that the prob­lem in Amer­ica is white supremacy, rather than black exis­tence or black infe­ri­or­ity, then it becomes clear that sun­down towns and sub­urbs are an intensification of the prob­lem, not a solu­tion to it. So long as racial inequal­ity is encoded in the most basic sin­gle fact in our society—where one can live—the United States will face con­tin­u­ing racial ten­sion, if not overt conflict.

Thus the con­tin­ued exis­tence of over­whelm­ingly white com­mu­ni­ties is ter­ri­bly impor­tant. [And, as the book points out, this is a neg­a­tive thing.] More­over, res­i­den­tial seg­re­ga­tion exac­er­bates all other forms of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion. Seg­re­gated neigh­bor­hoods make it eas­ier to dis­crim­i­nate against African Amer­i­cans in school­ing, hous­ing, and city ser­vices, for instance. We shall see that res­i­den­tial seg­re­ga­tion also causes employ­ment inequal­i­ties by iso­lat­ing African Amer­i­cans from the social net­works where job open­ings are dis­cussed. Thus some of the inad­e­qua­cies for which white Amer­i­cans blame black Amer­i­cans are prod­ucts of, rather than excuses for, res­i­den­tial seg­re­ga­tion.” (page 17)

Residential segregation is still the norm today, though it’s beginning to be drawn along lines of social class and economics, not just race. Even as some regions begin to look to their inner-cities in hopes of restoration, gentrification sometimes poses a perpetuation of the problem if it merely displaces the poor, minorities, and overlooked in order to restore buildings and city structures, rather than rebuilding community.

Concurrent with my reading of Sundown Towns, I was also reading Robert D. Lupton’s Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor. Although I’ll discuss the latter more comprehensively in another post, I found Sundown Towns to be a helpful foundation for expanding upon Lupton’s explanation of the challenges that segregated neighborhoods present to ministering through community outreach, particularly urban, inner-city ministry.

When we isolate ourselves from the people who are most different from us, it becomes much easier to generalize and paint them with a broad brush without taking the time to understand their needs and to celebrate diversity, rather than shun it. In the long run, this is detrimental to society. It’s also a lot easier to remove ourselves from the problems and simply move to the areas with the best school districts, the nicest parks, and best community services than it is to go into an area lacking in those areas and push for improvement.

At nearly 600 pages long, the book has a lot to say. I’ll limit this post to what it is now, but my husband Daniel has written further helpful information on the book here, much of his post touching on additional areas than what has been addressed specifically in this post.


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