Don't let the sun set on you in this town
December 28, 2005 4:30 AM   Subscribe

Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of Racism in America, by James Loewen (author's site; Dallas Morning News; Washington Post; Dallas Historical Society; Washington City Paper; Wikipedia)
posted by LinusMines (79 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It's amazing how many people think they have moved beyond prejudice, until the Jeffersons move in next door. I think we are going to be fighting this battle for many, many more generations.
posted by caddis at 4:38 AM on December 28, 2005

Hey, wait just a minute now!
Jonmc plainly told me in the last racism thread that the only racism I needed to worry about was inside me, not some overt acts or institutionalized racism! :-)

Other than that, thanks linusmines.
posted by nofundy at 5:01 AM on December 28, 2005

How big a deal is this really? There are plenty of places you shouldn't go because you are the wrong color or wrong religion or wrong accent.

And you know what? There is no reason to go to those places anyway. Idaho? Come on.

Lastly, while California may be overturning affirmative action, the rest of the world is going its merry xenophobic way. When it isn't color or religion or accent, its last name.
posted by ewkpates at 5:08 AM on December 28, 2005

I can't wait until racism goes the way of the dodo bird in mass graves.
posted by PigAlien at 5:20 AM on December 28, 2005

Ewkpates, in my mind the deal is pretty huge.

Your suggestion that people should just avoid these places is absurd. Unless of course, you want to bring back the handy signposts that proclaim "*Minority*, don't let the sun go down on you in *Name of Town*" to let people know where they can and can not stay.
I quite like the idea of being able to visit any place I want without fear of being lynched.

I wish there was a simple solution, but I don't think ignoring the issue is it.

Also, does anyone else find the idea of subtle "non-aggressive" segregation even creepier than the all out violent racism of lynch mobs?
posted by slimepuppy at 5:51 AM on December 28, 2005

That's my point. You have never been able to visit any place you want, you will never be able to visit any place you want.

The reasons may change from race to religion, or national origin, or last name. Every place is dangerous if you visit. The more visitors a place gets the less dangerous it is to visitors (generally).

Global tourism certainly works this way. Just because we all are part of one country doesn't mean our xenophobic small town crazies are less crazy.
posted by ewkpates at 6:20 AM on December 28, 2005

Maybe the solution is to strip off everyone's skin so we are all just muscle and sinew.
posted by PigAlien at 6:25 AM on December 28, 2005

How big a deal is this really?

Spoken like a honkey.
posted by caddis at 6:36 AM on December 28, 2005

ewkpates: "Every place is dangerous if you visit."

You must have a lovely social life.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 6:45 AM on December 28, 2005

Jonmc plainly told me in the last racism thread that the only racism I needed to worry about was inside me, not some overt acts or institutionalized racism! :-)

I shouldn't rise to the bait, but I don't like being misrepresented so I will elaborate. This kind of stuff is one of the less subtle versions of what I was talking about in that thread. I'm sure that the people in these towns and especially those elite suburbs mentioned consider themselves to be of higher moral fiber than KKK types, but these practices reveal that maybe not by much.

The same thing happens in New York City, with the added fun that just about every racial and ethnic group is territorial. It's led to ugly racial incidents in areas like Bensonhurst & Howard Beach and de facto segregation in others.

My buddy Paul told me a story of his teenage years that illustrates the dynamic nicely. Paul grew up in Co-Op City a multiracial housing project in the Bronx and attended a Catholic High School smack in the middle of a black & Latino ghetto. The local kids would see him & his classmates and harass them. They'd fight sometimes and run if they were outnumbered. They'd get chased, but the Black & Latin kids would always stop dead at Arthur Avenue, where the Italian neighborhood began, since to go any further was to risk a beating. My Dad and uncles and many older guys of every race have told me that the unwritten rule of living in a mixed neighborhood was that if someone of another race challenges you, you had to kick his ass or you were nothing on the street and easy pickings.

I don't know what the solution is, or even if there is one (beyond trying not to propogate it in my own life). As Richard Price put it race is "the American Flu." One way or another, it rears it's ugly head everywhere.

Maybe the solution is to strip off everyone's skin so we are all just muscle and sinew.

Not me, I'm sugar and spice and all things nice. :)
posted by jonmc at 6:46 AM on December 28, 2005

America! (fuck yeah!)
posted by nomds at 6:53 AM on December 28, 2005

Thanks for "taking the bait" jonmc. It was a pre-emptive strike! :-)
Your example sounds like institutional racism to me.
Just different neighborhoods in the same city instead of geographically separated towns.
I don't know the solution either.
Seems some folks are determined to scapegoat others, period.
Fear is a great motivator and demonization of others makes some worms feel better about their own miserable lives.
posted by nofundy at 7:05 AM on December 28, 2005

Your example sounds like institutional racism to me.

Forgive me if I'm misunderstanding, but "institutional racism," to me always meant government sanctioned or legal racism (which can, should, and in many respects has been struck down over the years). What I described seems like a horse of a different but equally worrisome color. Legalities are one thing, hearts & minds another.
posted by jonmc at 7:08 AM on December 28, 2005

Loewen does note later in the book, however, that Edina no longer remains all white, as do many of the sundown towns that he chronicles. According to the 2000 census, there were 546 African Americans living in the wealthy suburb, out of a total population of 47,425.

I was intrigued that Edina in Minnesota was this backward. We are talking about a very upper middle-class area, if not higher - which meant to me educated - so I went looking for more info. I am still looking, but from the wikipedia entry, I found this article and the above quote. It would appear education is not a huge factor in deciding racism.

Further, for those that say "why does it matter, just don't go there" I hear this and I begin to hear why our democracy is failing. It's not sort of right, and sort of wrong, the US is not supposed to be sorta of free is most places. From Rev. King - "their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom."

It should matter to you and you should voice your disgust. I would agree that not going there is an economic boycott, but I don't hear that and it certainly will not matter to the commuting neighborhood of Edina.
posted by fluffycreature at 7:12 AM on December 28, 2005 [2 favorites]

I am not condoning the practice, but in the end there will always be a human tendancy to gather in groups of socially like types. Is it genetic? Is it cultural? The color of one's skin, their religion, etc. does not bother me, but their behaviour does.

For all of you who condemn the USA, I would like a list of countries where this does not occur (and by neccessity you must exclude from the list those countries which with largely homgeneous populations).
posted by Capt. Bligh at 7:15 AM on December 28, 2005

(and by neccessity you must exclude from the list those countries which with largely homgeneous populations)

I imagine even in places like that, people will still find a reason to do this sort of shit. It's not a simple good guys/bad guys issue. We're all both ultimately.
posted by jonmc at 7:18 AM on December 28, 2005

I guess to my mind it is a couple of different things. This may be a particularly difficult problem that is faced across the globe, but if we throw up our hands and say, 'it'll never go away so why bother even talking about it', then it'll never go away, or get better. It surprises me how many prognosticators there are."Such and such will never happen". It wasn't terribly long ago when slavery was thought of as natural and right, and while slavery still exists here and there it is a much smaller problem then it use to be.
The second problem I have is the opposite situation, wherein large amounts of people refuse to believe that it exists. 'racism? No, not here. Didn't we get rid of that, like, in the '60s?' Which is what we tend to suffer from in many parts of the US.
posted by edgeways at 7:49 AM on December 28, 2005

My parents used to travel a lot back and forth btwn D.C.
and Fla. They never stopped the car, except to get gas.
They never stopped /rested at a hotel or motel. If they did, it was at a friend's or family house. That was in the late 60's and early 70's. You never knew when you were in Klan Kountry.
About 1971, we were living in West Palm Beach, Fla.
I was helping a friend deliver his newspapers. I asked him why he never went over there (The Tracks) to deliver.
He said, "If you cross those don't come back".
posted by doctorschlock at 7:52 AM on December 28, 2005

doctorschlock: My dad told me about going to visita freind of his who lived in Clinton Hill, a white enclave in Brooklyn surrounded by the Bed-Stuy ghetto. You had to "watch your ass," on the way back to the subway since "they'd kill you."

I say this not to start a who's-is-bigger, but to let you know that it seems to be universal, this condition of leaving in fear that the Other is legion and out to get you. Seems to be the core of the problem today. And I think our leaders of all races would rather exploit that than try to change anything.
posted by jonmc at 8:10 AM on December 28, 2005

(and by neccessity you must exclude from the list those countries which with largely homgeneous populations).

Those can be the worst.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:12 AM on December 28, 2005

Getting back to the U.S., let's not forget the Gretna bridge.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:28 AM on December 28, 2005

I'm actually shocked that so many people are voicing a blase, 'it's-human-nature' viewpoint on this story. First of all, the links describe not a banding together of people with like background, but a nationwide, systemic plan to exclude people on the basis of race from public accommodations and housing. These plans were supported by legislation and local law enforcement. Which is flat-out wrong in this civil society. I don't care whether you're "other" or not; the right to travel freely should be a bedrock concept in our democracy. Because it is criminal to refuse accommodations on the basis of race, and it is criminal to assault.

Jonmc, your neighborhood wars are a different animal, because they don't seem to be built around legislation. And the examples from previous generations are not completely relevant today. The banding-together of like ethnicities is more often found where there is competition for resources, especially where there's poverty. In the outlying boroughs of New York (and probably other cities) competition is the norm -- for housing, access to transportation, space in public parks, etc. Illiberal thinking ("we have to kick their ass or they'll kick ours") becomes a way of justifying aggressive attempts to claim those resources. It's more a function of poverty and resources inadequate to the population; it takes the form of racism because race and ethnicity make it simple to identify who's in the in-group and out-group. My family comes from a similar background (Bronx). Once the ethnic communities are able to amass enough wealth to meet their needs, inter--ethnic strife significantly declines. My parents live in an incredibly multi-ethnic neighborhood now where there are no street fights between rival races.

So we should consider the action of class, and the denial of access to adequate resources based on class, before throwing our hands up and saying "There's nothing we can do about the venaltiy of humans!" Good Lord, if we did that, we'd still have slavery.

It's ahistorical to suggest that no progress can be made; America is demonstrably much fairer than it was one hundered years ago. And worse, to argue that human nature is fixed and unchanging is to say that we should never, ever bother to amerliorate any social issue.
posted by Miko at 8:35 AM on December 28, 2005


Yeah, the issue in Japan is well known.

I just wanted to exclude countries like Iceland or Greenland. Clearly it is happening in many parts of enlightend Europe.

I lived in many countries throughout Latin America during the '60s and '70s, and it was prevelant there too, despite the protestations to the contrary in college by a professor from Chile.
posted by Capt. Bligh at 8:36 AM on December 28, 2005


wow. i live just around the corner from clinton hill (very mixed; not a white enclave) & bed stuy (million dollar brownstones=not a ghetto). when was your dad there? i've never heard the area described this way.

regardless, i (not black) and my mixed group of friends/family never walk around these neighborhoods with a freakish sense of "they" are out to get me.

the Other? legion?

nope. "they" are my neighbors. everyone in my latin, black, caribbean, and white neighborhood gets along very well, with no more drama than can be found in any suburb.

glad we're bucking the "universal" trend toward paranoia, here in brooklyn.
posted by aieou at 8:40 AM on December 28, 2005

Once the ethnic communities are able to amass enough wealth to meet their needs, inter--ethnic strife significantly declines.

Maybe somewhat, but, trust me it's still there. It gets filtered down to the next generation in diffuse ways. And I by no means am blase about these issues. If I left the impression, I was, I apologize.
posted by jonmc at 8:44 AM on December 28, 2005

when was your dad there?

My Dad was actually from Woodside, over in Queens. But the era in question was the early to mid 60's when the description was accurate.

glad we're bucking the "universal" trend toward paranoia, here in brooklyn.

Gentrification is changing all the old neighborhoods. In some ways for the better. Some ways for the worse.
posted by jonmc at 8:47 AM on December 28, 2005

Trust me it's still there.

Yes, I know, but it becomes gradually more obsolete as conditions improve. In any case, much better to call it out and oppose it than to argue for accepting this lizard-brain-based behavior as inevitable, when it is not. The tendencies for humans to revert to tribalism may exist, but they can and should be consciously overcome.
posted by Miko at 8:49 AM on December 28, 2005

Agreed Miko. I'm just trying to add a different historical perspective to an issue who's history is often told in rather simplistic terms. In Richard Price's novel The Wanderers (set in the early 60's Bronx) the horrifyingly hilarious "Brotherhood Week," scene illustrates what often went on underneath the bromides. And the scene is still being played out in every city, just with different players.
posted by jonmc at 8:54 AM on December 28, 2005

At least part of the motivation for forming suburbs like Edina was to flee the growing diversity of the inner city (and the perceived costs of such diversity). These new communities attracted people who preferred gathering in groups of similar individuals (white, middle class). So they are culturally more likely to be uncomfortable with the introduction of the different. Working with many inhabitants of such communities, I've gotten to know their slightly creepy exclusionary attitude, which is an outgrowth of their need to belong to a group. They were the first to gravitate toward the idea that glorified trucks (SUVs) were "cool" and "safe" and they are not bothered in the least that their houses are parodies of luxury. They represent the class from which our business leaders generally emerge and some of that attitude infects corporate America because of this. They are slowly changing, but at a glacial pace, and the most powerful weapon against them is peer pressure. Until the more recent upsurge in "conservative" popularity, this pressure had the old racist attitudes on the run. However, of late some of the ranks have felt free to express their inner Klansman, but cloaked in self-sufficiency and individual rights rhetoric. I don't despair, but neither do I expect any short-term gains.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:00 AM on December 28, 2005

Well, there are plenty of ethnicaly diverse suburbs as well, so people all colors can enjoy crapy hugebox houses and SUVs.
posted by delmoi at 9:22 AM on December 28, 2005

What I'd like to see clarified by the book, what constitutes a Sundown town today? It seems from the book information, its any town which had previous policies of black exclusion, and has since failed to develope any notable minority population. Also, what is the average size of said towns? 100? 1,000? 10,000? His criteria can easily inflate the number of "current" sundown locations.

Loewen is an interesting fellow. I've read his previous book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, and I've attended a lecture he gave at my school (where he discussed his plans to investigate the Sundown phenomena, well before he had an idea of the breadth of the issue). My one gripe with him is that sometimes he prefers to take what he see's on top of the pile, versus digging down for the further related history. He is a sociologist, not a historian, after all.

I think its wonderful that he's addressed the subject, but I think its irrational to point at the phenomena and declare that it represents the America of today. The United States has undergone and continues to undergo serious changes in society and race relations. While its definitely possible that certain communities still exist that actively practice such behaviors, I doubt that a majority of them do. The Great Era of racial migration is ended, so I fail to see a lack of African Americans suddenly deciding to move to some no name town in the middle of Indiana as evidence of current racial prejudice.
posted by Atreides at 9:22 AM on December 28, 2005

Well, there are plenty of ethnicaly diverse suburbs as well, so people all colors can enjoy crapy hugebox houses and SUVs.

Suburbs are prey to gentrification as well, but that's a whole other phenomenon.
posted by jonmc at 9:24 AM on December 28, 2005

Is Compton a reverse sundown town?
posted by keswick at 9:25 AM on December 28, 2005

Would the reaction be quite so "blase" if a majority of these communities were in the South? Not that I disagree with most of the comments given here but I imagine there would be a fire storm of outrage if the towns and cities were located in Alabama, Mississippi, etc. rather than the mid-west.
posted by Carbolic at 9:53 AM on December 28, 2005

I just wanted to exclude countries like Iceland or Greenland. Clearly it is happening in many parts of enlightend Europe.

Greenland's population (to the extent that it has one -- 56k according to Wikipedia) is biracial, not homogeneous. Official figures do not appear to distinguish on the basis of ethnicity; the term "indigenous" is applied to everyone born there, leading to the impression that the population is 90% Inuit, which is probably not the case. Politically it's part of Denmark (they have home rule but are subordinate in many respects, particularly in international affairs) where some Greenlandic people say they face discrimination, but it doesn't seem to be systemic.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:09 AM on December 28, 2005

I imagine there would be a fire storm of outrage if the towns and cities were located in Alabama, Mississippi, etc. rather than the mid-west.

That's because the south is modern America's scapegoat for all it's past and present sins.
posted by jonmc at 10:11 AM on December 28, 2005

And you know what? There is no reason to go to those places anyway. Idaho? Come on.
The State with Landscape like one may think to be found on the Earth's Moon...yea pass, not.
Met very few people the several times passing through the state in a car.

That's the problem; less population may have small minded thinking.
posted by thomcatspike at 10:16 AM on December 28, 2005

For all of you who condemn the USA, I would like a list of countries where this does not occur

I think one of the major differences between the USA and these "other countries" is that the USA is consistently presented (by the USA) as the ideal. The reason so many people "condemn" the USA is because the country is so hypocritical. The politicians tout how they're bringing democracy to Iraq (and other places) when their own democracy is a joke. You belittle "third world countries" for their poverty and backwards thinking when you've got people starving in cities big and small in your own country. Get yer friggin priorities straight!

I certainly don't think the place is evil as many of my countrymen and women do, but I sure get damn tired of "Other places are just as bad" as an answer every time the country's problems are illuminated. Sure, there's racism (and violence and misogyny and everything else) where I live, but our gov't doesn't make a policy out of trying to fix these problems everywhere else but in our own backyard.
posted by dobbs at 10:19 AM on December 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

Is Compton a reverse sundown town?
When?, then 1930's or now. The high school's nickname comes form all the oil being pumped out of the ground when it was founded - "tarbabies." So I would imagine it's early population was tied into the oil buisness.
posted by thomcatspike at 10:21 AM on December 28, 2005

when it was founded began to be populated
posted by thomcatspike at 10:23 AM on December 28, 2005

dobbs, I just realized the US South has something in common with the rest of the world. The other regions of the US use us to distract themselves from their own problems. In the US racism only fuels outrage if it occurs below the Mason-Dixon. If it occurs somewhere else in the country it's just something that will always exist everywhere and is a product of basic human nature.

I'm becoming a bit outraged by the lack of outrage.
posted by Carbolic at 10:30 AM on December 28, 2005

tomcatspike, keswick was referring to the phenomenon of areas where you can get the crap kicked out of you for being white. This is a very delicate issue in the U.S. -- it's a very common problem which government, media and socially aware people try to play down because it threatens the progress we've made. A pity, because it needs to be confronted.

I spent a big part of my childhood on a U.S. airbase in Japan. I never encountered anything resembling racism -- I look at photos and realize my friends were every color imaginable and mixtures thereof, and nobody ever gave it any thought; it was as important as hair color.

When we moved to the U.S. it was an incredible shock. We lived in a University neighborhood, but three or four blocks away marked the beginning of a completely African-American neighborhood. The racism was inescapable and extreme -- I went from a place where race meant nothing to where it meant your safety was very much in question -- you didn't walk far in that direction if you didn't want the crap beaten out of you. I saw racial violence against whites on the order of weekly; invariably unprovoked. I never once saw it going the other way, despite going to a school where black kids were very much in the minority. I won't generalize from my experience, which may be very unusual. But I wish we could learn how to make that Air Force culture the norm, at least in that respect. Thing is, on an airbase on foreign soil you don't usually have a lot of choice about where you live.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:32 AM on December 28, 2005

An astute comment above how economic opportunity seemed to ameliorate race problems.
In the brother/sister/hood of humankind the real issues lie not with skin color or nationality, but with class separation and unequal opportunity.

Want to get rid of the internal and underlying causes of friction? Then fight against the barriers created against commoners by the wealthy.
posted by nofundy at 10:44 AM on December 28, 2005

I'm becoming a bit outraged by the lack of outrage.

I think the lack of outrage is mostly based on this post sucking. If this were a link to a (hypothetical) website where we could look up sundown towns* with blurbs, population figures, political leaders' statements, etc., I think I could work up some good outrage. As it is, this post just links, pepsi-blue-style, to a bunch of book reviews. How outraged should I be? I don't know; maybe I should buy the book and find out. Or more likely, the automatic scepticism I feel someone's trying to build outrage to get me to buy something will win out.

* Since we're talking hypothetically, it'd be great if we could link it into google maps so we could actually see the distribution of these towns.
posted by boaz at 10:53 AM on December 28, 2005

Thank you, George_Spiggott, for getting my point.
posted by keswick at 10:58 AM on December 28, 2005


i dunno. if anything, somone saying "look everyone! racism in the south!" would (you'd think) get nothing more than a collective "no duh." i know older people who still refer to the Civil War as The War of Northern Aggression. having grown up in GA, i feel like racism is a deep, deep scar on the region & 1/2 a century of civil rights awareness certainly hasn't removed it.

but damn. i agree with you on this: let's not be casual about racism, wherever it exists. this "like attracts like" nonsese ... that's no excuse.
posted by aieou at 11:03 AM on December 28, 2005

So does anybody here actually live in a Sundown Town (and know it)?

I do. Bellingham, WA (frequently described as a "nice liberal town" - what the hell do they know). Until 1957, it had an enforced sundown law on the books, a lot of real estate has restrictive "whites only covenants" and all the rest of it. Bellingham had a race riot in the early 20th century that ran all of the "non-whites" out of town -- at that time there were a large number of Sikhs working in the fish canneries, brought in to replace the Chinese who had previously been run out.

It was not until the late 1980's that the town became even remotely safe for black families. Even now, there are continuing problems.

Bellevue and Issaquah (Seattle suburbs) were very much Sundown Suburbs through the 70s and into the 80s. As a matter of fact, Issaquah hosted the largest Klan meeting on the West coast in the 1920s. Ennis Arden (a suburb north of Seattle) was designed and built as a "whites-only" onclave in the 1950s. There are lots of other examples.
posted by warbaby at 11:07 AM on December 28, 2005

Jon, you know that New York (well, Brooklyn at least) was explicitly segregated by the federal government, right?
posted by dame at 11:07 AM on December 28, 2005

Sundown you better beward if I find you creeping 'round my back stair.
posted by maxsparber at 11:10 AM on December 28, 2005

And by beward I mean beware.
posted by maxsparber at 11:11 AM on December 28, 2005

Jon, you know that New York (well, Brooklyn at least) was explicitly segregated by the federal government, right?

Up until when? and in what ways (residential, schools)?

I'm not challenging you. I'm honestly curious.
posted by jonmc at 11:17 AM on December 28, 2005

Residential. In the thirties, via mortgage help and guarantees. It was a lot more mixed before that. Then they drew up maps based on what race "predominated" and that was where people would be able to buy. They talk about it in the Depression episode of the New York documentary that was on PBS, by the guy who made Baseball.

Maybe I can hunt down more later, but I'm actually trying to do some work right now.
posted by dame at 11:23 AM on December 28, 2005


I agree there is racism in the South. It's the "no duh" accompanied with the attitude that it only exist in that part of the US or that it is much worse there than in other parts of the country that bothers me. If someone makes a post about racism in the South the fact that it exists is immediately accepted no matter how thin the evidence provided. If the charge is made about some other region it is met with skepticism and request for proof. I'm not saying skepticism and desire for proof are bad I'm just seeing an inconsistency.
posted by Carbolic at 11:24 AM on December 28, 2005

In other news, if my Uncle Pete crashes his car but claims he was sober, people are much less likely to believe him than if my Uncle Joe made the same claim. Sure it's an inconsistency, but let's just say there's some history involved.
posted by boaz at 11:33 AM on December 28, 2005

I know for a fact, that there are areas of Dallas where I could not go. And not just after dark. Ever. Under any circumstances. Not safely.

My experience, from living in different places around the world, leads me to believe that given an opportunity, people will congregate with other people that they view as "like us". These communities tend to grow, and in some cases fester, and become more insular and much more territorial.

It's not just the US, either. In countries like Holland, the ethnic minorities have claimed their own section of towns like Utrecht and Amsterdam. Or so it seemed to me, a decade ago. London is self segregated, as is Paris, Berlin, fact, I can't think of a single city or country I've been to, where people hadn't clumped themselves in with the familiar.

I've read some about the Sundowner towns before, but I would suggest those are less of a problem than the rising level of racial enclaves where other races aren't welcome at all.

I don't know how we solve it. I don't know how we can retain cultural heritage, and still remain a melting pot. How do we remove the fear of the "other"?
posted by dejah420 at 11:38 AM on December 28, 2005

Atreides nails the problem with Loewen: "he prefers to take what he see's on top of the pile, versus digging down for the further related history. He is a sociologist, not a historian, after all." His best-known book, Lies My Teacher Told Me was a huge straw man argument, in which he pretended that American history was still being taught exactly as it was in 1950, then showed why this was wrong. (Implying throughout that he, James Loewen, was the first person ever to figure that out.) I haven't read the sunset towns book yet, but the reviews mostly criticize Loewen for a too-facile use of oral histories and too little actual digging in the archives.

That said, the pattern of ethnic cleansing that Warbaby describes in Bellingham is a really common and understudied phenomena. In my part of the world (southwest Missouri) a series of race riots pushed blacks out of one town after another between 1890 and 1910, and the towns mostly remained off-limits to blacks until recent years. But when a student of mine wrote a really excellent and detailed study of the process in one town, a regional history journal initially refused to publish it. The reviewer thought the term ethnic cleansing was sensational.
posted by LarryC at 11:40 AM on December 28, 2005


unfortunately, there is an immediate assumption that south=racism, mainly because the south has more history to answer for than, say, Vermont.

i understand this assumption, but i hear what you're saying. i loathe people making assumptions about me, my family, or friends based on our regional identity.

i always have a hard time explaining atlanta politics to folks up here in the north. i like to refer to the example that the city of atlanta hasn't had a WASP mayor in 45 years (in '70, the city elected a jewish mayor; every mayor since has been black). people either don't believe it, or they don't see it as an honest step in overcoming the region's racist history. certainly, places like houma, louisiana still exist -- but there are some great strides v. racism being made all over the south.

what makes this topic of sundown towns so interesting to me, is that it drags the conversation on racism out of the south.
posted by aieou at 11:52 AM on December 28, 2005

I first heard about this book from Dave Niewert, who just finished his book, Strawberry Days, which is about the destruction of the Japanese community in Bellevue during WWII. Dave recommended the book highly, partly because there are so few books that will even touch this subject.

On a slightly different tangent, the operative term here is white supremacy, not racism. The sundown laws, restrictive covenants, etc. were created by whites to institutionalize their privilege. This is much different than more generalized conflicts between cultural groups.

Whatever Lowen's flaws as an author and researcher may or may not be, the issue of legally enforced racial segregation in white supremacist communities is very real. I do note that because of the relative scarcity of publications on this topic, nobody attacking Lowen is really questioning the underlying issue, but they sort of attempt to make it go away by focussing on what are tangential issues.
posted by warbaby at 11:58 AM on December 28, 2005

I grew up near a town with a very large and prominent sundown sign.
posted by nofundy at 12:18 PM on December 28, 2005

How to change it? Here's how one family 1986, we moved into a low-to-moderate income housing development in a liberal college town, which, just the year before, finally desegregated their public schools. The ethnic mix at that time in the neighborhood was about 70% black and 30% white. It is now probably 40 black, 40 white and 20 asian (hispanic and native american and other account for about 2-5%).

At first, some black families were a little reluctant to welcome us, but staying here and raisinng our kids here, we are a part of the community. Yes, our kids got beat up a couple of times--but we went and met with the parents in a frame of "let's work this out" rather than "look at what your kids did" and our kids became part of the community but not part of the local gangs (I think education and income probably played a part there).

I am not nominating us for any prize, just saying that the way to end racism is to live with each other. I still have "racial" thoughts--like I think it is funny when a guy wears a stocking on his head to keep his process tight, and they think it's funny that I wear "dockers" (any sort of pants fitting that description); but Our kids grew up here and they also have chosen to live in racially mixed areas.

this proceeds from a deeply held ethos (my grandfather taught my father and my father taught me) that we are all more the same than we are different and each person treated with respect (generally) returns respect. I guess I grew up all hippie with a presumption of the equality of the races and the sexes.

Loewen's book is weak, but the racism and classism in our culture is still pretty strongly ingrained. someone upthread remarked that the "ruling" elite foments this to keep us all down. I don't think it is as simple or as intentionally organized as that, but I do think that it is the responsibility of each of us to speak out against these things in our workplaces and our schools and our places of worship.

I'll close by saying that this does not come from a religious training--this is from a humanist perspective that says we need to all treat each other better.
posted by beelzbubba at 12:46 PM on December 28, 2005

I am not at all surprised that this is still going on given the attitude of many of the white Americans that I rub shoulders with.

This country is frighteningly good at looking the other way.
posted by tbonicus at 2:57 PM on December 28, 2005

america sucks, film at 11.
posted by delmoi at 3:53 PM on December 28, 2005

I'm not at all surprised to see racism in the northern US. I spent a single day in New Jersey and saw more racism there than I had all year in Canada. I currently live in Mississauga, which is a mess to begin with in terms of city planning, and is now the most diverse community in the country. It's just not organized enough to foster ethnic neighbourhoods, I'm sure.

And I agree with the statement above that the US prides itself on being better than the rest of us; you don't get to say "show us how you're any better" when you're constantly telling us how head-and-shoulders above us you are.

The US has a serious race problem. The more sources there are to show it to white folks who think racism is no big deal, the better.
posted by Hildegarde at 5:48 PM on December 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

Stay your outrage, Boaz...despite appearances, I'm not with the Loewen street team. I just posted what I saw as an interesting and mostly 'hidden' topic I chanced upon. Seeing no wealth of online source material, I included the two author-cited reviews--along with a third which got me started on all of this--for the group to filter (which it did quite well). Together, all three were to present a view of the book's strengths and weaknesses.

Loewen's reliance on oral history may be seen as a problem area, but in some defense of him, there's unlikely to be many Chambers of Commerce chronicling old 'policies' or eager to have them brought before the spotlight. The links to the historical forum and discussion transcript illustrate how anecdotal evidence can help with context (and also, invite occasional skepticism). The Wikipedia link lists several cities cited in the book.

I'm interested in the extent to which this phenomenon went beyond the usual-suspect South, into cities near mine and further north. A Google Map overlay would be a great project, but I could imagine myself getting depressed as the base map becomes overrun with stickpins.

The 'pepsi-blue-style' reference has me lost, I admit.
posted by LinusMines at 6:04 PM on December 28, 2005

I have to wonder about this "historical" vs "sociological" argument some of Loewen's critics are making. Based on my experience, the local history of an area pretty much whitewashes (heh) the ugly parts of the past, while the sociological effects are still there and operating. The Bellingham expulsion of the Sikhs is pretty much a "secret history" -- though archival sources do exist. But if you go to the local museum, you get a booster-Babbit laundered version of the past.

But the effects of that history are quite present. Almost everybody that lives around here experiences -- sooner or later -- some dumbass nativist confronting them with "How long have you lived in Whatcom County?"

This is so stereotyped that when I pointed it out at a gathering, a lot of people disclosed that they thought it was an "isolated incident" -- where it really is one aspect of the socialized history of lynching that persists around here.

And it's still very much operative. In 2001, a bunch of kids who styled themselves as anarchists were literally run out of town when they ran afoul of an incredibly crooked real estate deal the town's good ol' boys were helping themselves too. It was pretty damn bizarre. There were squads of cops chasing young people through the streets, grabbing them, checking photos in a book and then letting them off with a "warning" if they weren't the ones they were looking for. There was a dragnet one night that netted a half-dozen arrests and the sweep was timed so that everybody arrested (on misdemeanor charges) would have to spend the night in jail because the clerk that accepted bond had gone home for the night. And the whole mess was capped with a conspiracy misdemeanor trial -- yup, that's right.

Lift any rock and all sorts of these things will come crawling out.

Furthermore, the "isolated incident" argument doesn't wash. I can point to a half-dozen communities around Puget Sound with similar histories and sociology.

I also notice that up in the thread several people equate Sundown Towns with ethnic territoriality. This is not the same thing at all. Insularity is one thing, but areas where the local government enforced the expulsion of minorities is catagorically different. And these areas have a persisting legacy that makes them functionally distinct from self-perpetuating cultural homogenaity and insularity. People act differently in Sunset Towns, even though they may not understand either their history or motivation.
posted by warbaby at 6:52 PM on December 28, 2005

I spent a single day in New Jersey and saw more racism there than I had all year in Canada.-Hildegarde

Ironically, my girlfriend went to Toronto for a week, and saw more racism up there than she had in Arkansas for a year. The United States may have troubles with racism, but it certainly isn't the lone nation in the world with such.

I have to wonder about this "historical" vs "sociological" argument some of Loewen's critics are making. Based on my experience, the local history of an area pretty much whitewashes (heh) the ugly parts of the past, while the sociological effects are still there and operating.-Warbaby

It seems you're equating local history purely with what the town librarian will offer up to the curious, or the centennial publication produce by the town council. A good historian would take such with a grain of salt, a starting point to examine the past, not as the end all or be all of the history.

I will go ahead and offer something of the Sundown aspect of the town in which my parents grew up by and in, Grundy, Virginia. This was told to me by great-uncle. The town/county had been Sundown ever since a black man reportedly raped the white school teacher. The story goes that a mob grabbed him, hung him from the school's steeple, and then burnt down the building. (Excessive, eh?) From that point on, my great-uncle said, Grundy had been Sundown. More interestingly, my parents had never heard the story.

However, how could I actually verify this? First, I would look up census data for the time period surrounding the event. Examine the racial composition before and then after. I would also look into reading local or nearby newspapers which might have reported upon the event. An amazing amount of "secret" history was just regular news that people read and either decidedly or eventually forgot. I would also look for supporting oral histories that collaborated with my great-uncle's story as well.
History is more than simply checking out the local library.
posted by Atreides at 8:12 PM on December 28, 2005

Getting back to the U.S., let's not forget the Gretna bridge.

i'm pretty sure the most racist thing i've heard in years is the potus insisting that race was not a factor in the katrina response.
posted by 3.2.3 at 11:58 PM on December 28, 2005

Stay your outrage, Boaz

I thought the problem was that I wasn't outraged enough. Now I'm all confused.

Still, this sounds like a potentially interesting (and outrage-inducing) subject, and I do hope a resource appears on the web someday that'll do it justice.
posted by boaz at 12:09 AM on December 29, 2005

I read this book, and found it fascinating. The history that "everybody" knows about areas, but isn't documented anywhere. Lots of race riots, which seem to mostly be white people chasing people of color out of towns, or even entire counties that go sundown.

Towns that go sundown, and then the residents of that town taunt residents of the next towns about not being sundown, and the next thing you know there is some incident(often manufactured) that results in a (white)race riot in that other town, and another town went sundown.

Most interesting to me(because I have direct experience with it) was his chapter on the effects on the residents and children of these towns. He relates anecdotal observations about the fear that residents of sundown towns have of others, and how this often manifests itself in acts of sad bravado when visiting racially mixed areas. How the children of these towns can be restrained from ever leaving an area due to the perception that the outside world is unsafe and out of control.

My beef with racism was that it could cost us benefits to society by not making opportunity available to all people(potential great scientist never gets opportunity because certain people are denied access to resources), but it also can work the other way, and there are also potentially great diplomats or philosophers that are never going anywhere because the local community college program is "enough", and the insular culture a child is immersed in dictates that the outside world is too dangerous for that person to ever interact with it.

Many parts of this book were just sad(travelers guides, by blacks and for black motorists, that would explain what route to take getting from one point to another, to ensure you didn't stop for gas or a motel at the "wrong" place and end up getting chased out of a town). The brutal regularity of the use of violence to drive out families that may have lived in an area for several generations, and the institutional blindness that created an inability of the victims to be compensated for what often amounted to property theft of a families accumulated assets of generations of work in one night.

A lot of places were constructed to be white only, but a lot more places were the sites of actual ethnic cleansing. There's just no other words that more accurately describe a racially mixed area, that had been racially mixed for generations, that suddenly undergoes a fit of social madness and one group uses violence to intimidate, often kill, and expel another group from their own land. And it is often well known and yet undocumented, until now. This is a very good book, it documents a lot of terrible crimes, and the effects those crimes have had on the victims, the criminals, and the children and grandchildren of both groups.
posted by dglynn at 5:36 AM on December 29, 2005

As the author of SUNDOWN TOWNS, I'm amazed that people can write about the weaknesses of my book without ever having read it. What is on the web is not the whole story. I'm working on a "sundown towns" section of my website, but meanwhile, I did write 550 pages on the topic. How 'bout reading it before attacking it? And, yes, I'm as outraged as anyone when whites find minority neighborhoods unsafe. But that does not excuse, much less explain, sundown towns.
posted by jloewen at 6:20 AM on December 29, 2005 [1 favorite]

Thank you jloewen.
posted by nofundy at 6:51 AM on December 29, 2005

How 'bout reading it before attacking it?-jloween

As always, all final judgement is reserved until the book is read. Don't mistake some of the criticism in this thread about the lack of more information about your work or the situation in general, as an overall condemnation of the book or its choice of subject. I believe most of the criticism, and notably there is not an excessive amount of it, refers to Lies My Teacher Told Me and not Sundown Towns.
posted by Atreides at 7:43 AM on December 29, 2005

Bah, jloween == jloewen
posted by Atreides at 8:11 AM on December 29, 2005

tomcatspike, keswick was referring to the phenomenon of areas where you can get the crap kicked out of you for being white.
I know the area and was taught how to handle those areas with signs to not have my ass beaten down…I was talking about Compton changing, because it was once a prominent white area. Times change and so do social climates.

Other areas where you can get your ass kicked for not being a local is in the sport of surfing (ocean). Locals hate other surfers intruding on their surf spots. The movie Point Break has a scene in it about this phenomenon.

Or, you can look at Hawaii a State thought as kick back & relax, All Welcome. Yea, right as it has spots of land that no white may go because the ground is "sacred." This is taken further in the Hawaiian community when the Polynesians separate the Hawaiian from the Samoan who is allowed on the sacred land.

It does not matter where you are at in the world, there will always be locals and visitors – or as some say, racism.

I spent a big part of my childhood on a U.S. airbase in Japan. I never encountered anything resembling racism --
Japan is a "class society" which may be worse because it bases you by $ and status symbol in it.
posted by thomcatspike at 9:00 AM on December 29, 2005

I'm just glad to know why there were never any black people at The Ediner restaurant.
posted by maxsparber at 9:18 AM on December 29, 2005

I grew up near a town with a very large and prominent sundown sign.
Seen the one in Fayetteville, Arkansas, though it is painted over with the wording still visible. It was pointed out to me by a resident because it was not removed, just "white washed."
posted by thomcatspike at 9:25 AM on December 29, 2005

Thomcatspike, where about in Fayetteville is this sign located? I'd be interested in checking it out.
posted by Atreides at 11:43 AM on December 29, 2005

"I'm amazed that people can write about the weaknesses of my book without ever having read it"

New to the intarwebs, are we?
posted by Irontom at 12:26 PM on December 29, 2005

A not unrelated AskMe thread.
posted by jack_mo at 9:41 AM on December 31, 2005

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