Friday, June 23, 2017

Book Review: 'Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism' by James Loewen

Review by mtullius (Nom de plume)
I just finished reading James Loewen's Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism.  It clocks in at well over 400 pages, so it took me a while.  This book was published in 2005 and has recently come out in paperback.  You may know Loewen as the author of the wildly (and justly) popular, Lies My Teacher Told Me, and Lies Across America.
Sundown towns are towns and cities which are/were "all-white on purpose."  That is, they have tiny or non-existent Black populations, and they have maintained their racial purity with deliberate acts of exclusion (up to and including violence).  The most important thing to know about sundown towns is that they are not confined to the South.  In fact, they are relatively rare in the south.  More below the fold about this amazing book and its implications for how we live now.
Loewen found sundown towns to be widespread in Illinois (the focus of his research and his home state), common throughout the midwest, and scattered all through the mid-Atlantic, Northeast, West, and Pacific regions.  Many of these towns had the characteristic sundown sign posted at the city limits: "N*****, Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Your Ass in [name of town]."  Others were more subtle.  But the effect was the same: African-Americans (and in some cases, Jews, Latinos, and Asian-Americans) were kept out, by force, intimidation, and even statute.
To repeat: the most important thing I learned from this book is how widespread sundown towns were-- from Appleton, Wisconsin (one of the larger sundown towns), to La Jolla, California, to places in Maine, to nearly the entire state of Idaho.  The deep south actually had fewer sundown towns than the rest of the country-- while African-Americans suffered plenty of discrimination there, most White southerners were not interested in excluding blacks from their towns (exploitation and oppression, yes).
The larger point is also well worth absorbing: racism in general was not, and has not, and is not, limited to the South.  Even lynching, much in the news lately and the most horrific symbol of our country's racism, was not limited to the South.  In fact, Loewen found in that many areas of the midwest lynchings were perpetrated at nearly the same rates (controlling for the African-American population) as in the South.  
The other essential point the book makes is that this is a hidden history: discussion of sundown towns has been kept out of most histories.  Local histories tend to whitewash (no pun intended) their town's story, but even more 'serious' books have largely ignored the phenomenon, even when talking about notorious sundown towns.
Loewen also includes a bound-to-be controversial discussion of 'sundown suburbs.'  Most suburbs were founded as sundown towns-- Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota (the area where I live), wrote racially exclusionary language into its covenants for many years.  Loewen shows that, even today, the most "prestigious" suburbs tend to be all-white, and this is no coincidence.  These suburbs maintain what has been called the "paradox of exclusivity": that is, a large part of what makes them desirable is their whiteness, but at the same time, in this day and age, excluding minorities is not considered acceptable behavior, so they must mask their exclusion with code words.  These can include "safe," "good schools," etc.  
This is not to say that all suburbs, even those which are mostly or nearly entirely white, are actively excluding Black people.  But many of them have, at some point in their history, and many of them have not actively tried to overcome that history of exclusion.  Many of them still practice subtle methods of exclusion: requiring teachers or police/fire personnel to live in the town they work in (which perpetuates exclusion, since the towns start off as all-white), having real estate agents steer clients of color elsewhere, refusing to allow certain kinds of development, etc.
Loewen includes a section on the effects of sundown towns on whites, on African-Americans, and on society in general.  Needless to say, he sees their effects as negative on all of these groups.  He offers this priceless suggestion for responding to a friend or colleague's plan to move to an all-white suburb: "Aren't you worried about the fact that your child will be attending an all-white school?"  This effectively turns around the societal encouragement of moving to the 'burbs and lays bare the real costs that can be incurred.
Housing segregation is rarely talked about in our society, yet it is a disturbing aspect of our racial problems that doesn't show any signs of going away.  I live in a multi-racial city neighborhood, but many of the white residents are older.  I hope that other white people will continue to live here, maintaining the diverse character of the neighborhood.  But as long as society continues to normalize the idea that, once one has children, one must move to the suburbs, my neighborhood will struggle to be diverse.
As a former public school teacher, I get upset when people blithely talk about the quality of the schools in the suburbs.  What basis do they have for making these kinds of casual assumptions?  How do you evaluate the actual quality of a school?  Certainly not solely by standardized test scores, since these depend mostly on the socio-economic status of the students in the school.  So how?  Too often, I fear, the real answer is that "good schools" mean "mostly white, middle to upper class schools."  But no one wants to say, "I'm moving to the suburbs because I want my child to only go to school with other white middle class kids."
We need to unpack some of the assumptions we have about schools, about city living, and about all-white communities.  In this day and age, if a town or city is all-white (or nearly so), it is probably not a coincidence.  That town probably excluded people at some point, and it may still have not faced up to its history and tried to fix it.  
Loewen has a website which lists possible sundown towns (based on census data) along with towns he has confirmed through research as sundown at some point.  I grew up in a possible sundown town (in Connecticut).  One of my good friends currently lives in a former sundown town (in Illinois).  Our current President and Vice-President are both from sundown towns (in Texas).  
This is a great book which should spark lots of future research on an overlooked phenomenon.  And maybe some soul-searching, too...

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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