As Reconstruction ended, and the Great Migration was getting underway, white people collectively looked around and realized they weren’t alone.
And they wanted to be. So they made it happen.
A summary of the series looking at the book Sundown Towns by James Loewen,
and also ideas for what you can do about it.
Sundown towns cannot be understood outside of the historical period that spawned them.
“In 1909, in the aftermath of a horrific nearby ‘spectacle lynching,’ Anna and Jonesboro [Illinois] expelled their African Americans. Both cities have been all-white ever since. Nearly a century later, ‘Anna’ is still considered by its residents and by citizens of nearby towns to mean ‘Ain’t No N****** Allowed.’”
Examine Your Life.
What does it mean to be formed by a place and its history? What are we taught is normal? What are your foundations?
Check Your Bias.
Thus a lynching becomes a community event to which all whites participate, at least vicariously, because the entire white community decides not to punish the perpetrators.
Take A Stand.
Many white liberals in sundown towns and suburbs worry about social ostracism, so their anti-racism never gets voiced beyond the confines of home.
Be willing to put something on the line – money, reputation, cost of living, education, jail time, something. Figure out what costs you’re willing to pay to stand up for the humanity of others.
Asking ‘Why?’ with quiet astonishment when acquaintances announce that they are thinking of moving to a town or suburb known to be overwhelmingly white invites people to explain their decision – suddenly no longer obvious – to live in such places and may make them think.
Concealment has been especially vital in the suburbs. The system of racial status that sundown suburbs embody needs mystification to work.
Advocate for Diverse and Empathetic Communities.
Almost every suburb that sprang up or expanded after World War II was whites-only.
By limiting what could be built where, cities could ban:
mobile homes, public housing, subsidized housing, housing for the elderly, and apartments – and thus the kind of people who would live in such housing…Race, not the market, usually underlies suburban vetoes of public housing and subsidized housing.
Show up to your city council meetings. Know when housing developments are going in, and be an advocate for just and fair living situations. Speak up when people make disparging comments about ‘that side of town’. Be the kind of person who is not afraid to live next to people who are different.
Across the United States, exclusionary covenants were the rule rather than the exception.
Stop Avoiding People Who Are Different.
Even as late as 1957, a teaching manual for Realtors…counseled against introducing ‘undesirable influences’ into a block. Included among these undesirable influences were bootleggers, gangsters, or ‘a colored man of means who was giving his children a college education and thought they were entitled to live among whites.’
Who are the people to be avoided in your life? In your neighborhood, your church, your town, your job? Go be around them.
Know Your Government.
Who is your mayor or city manager? Who is holding them accountable? Who is on your city council? Who is the city planner? What kinds of codes are on the books and who are the code enforcers? Code enforcers are obligated to enforce the laws and codes. Help them out by advocating for fair laws and being a good neighbor. Don’t be the jackass neighbor who calls the city to complain about the length of grass, because most likely there is a reason other than laziness that the yard is not getting mowed. Don’t be the jerk who calls and reports someone for trying to make a little cash on the side doing mechanic work in their garage.
What are the penalties? Who is your local government set up to help and protect?
You have a responsibility to be an informed resident, and if you are eligible to vote, you have a responsibility to be an informed voter. Try to be an empathetic one.
During the Depression the federal government…set up at least seven towns…that explicitly kept out African Americans. At the same time, and for three more decades, the Federal Housing Administration – a government agency – required restrictive covenants before insuring housing loans.
The claim that lack of jobs caused towns to go all-white is rendered preposterous by those sundown towns where African Americans have been allowed to work but not to live.
Are any towns or counties in your area named ‘best place to live‘? What are the demographics? Best place for who?
Not only do many sundown towns remain all-white, but whites are still forming new ones and converting independent sundown towns to sundown suburbs by fleeing to them from newly desegregating inner suburbs.
How would you describe your neighborhood to someone like Loewen? How old is it? Does it have any public amenities? What are the attitudes of your neighbors?
Elite sundown suburbs offer no facilities to house, treat, or comfort such people – no halfway houses for the mentally ill or ex-criminals, no residential drug treatment facilities, no public housing, often not even assisted-living complexes for the elderly or persons with disabilities. This is no accident…The result, nationally, is that cities provide 49% of all homeless assistance programs, suburbs 19%, and rural areas 32%. Yet suburbs have more people than cities and rural areas combined.
Gated communities epitomize defended neighborhoods, providing no amenities, not even streets, that are open to the public. Their walls and fences keep the public away from streets, sidewalks, playgrounds, parks, beaches, and even rivers and trails – resources that normally would be shared by all the citizens of a metropolitan area….status and marketability, rather than security, usually drive gating.
What kind of life are we aspiring to? What way of life are we defending, with both our words and our silence?
What are some of the costs to pursuing equality and not elitism?
What costs are you willing to pay?
White Americans encounter sundown towns every day but rarely think about them or even realize that they’re in one.
Omitted events usually signify hidden fault lines in our culture.
Absence means something. Who is not present? Who is not represented? Who is not heard from? What voices are absent from your everyday life?
Just as cognitive dissonance makes whites more racist when they live in a sundown town, which they must justify, so it makes whites less racist, even anti-racist, when they live in a multiracial town, which they must justify.
Even today, many African Americans do not feel that the world is their oyster, ready to be explored and enjoyed. And why should they? It would give anyone pause to realize that merely being in a town after dark can be a life-threatening offense. This worry about acceptance, this feeling ill at ease, is the opposite of ‘white privilege’ – that sense of security felt by upper- and middle-class whites that they will never be challenged as out of place.
Integration is no panacea, but there is no substitute…Integrated towns and suburbs are a necessary first step to integrated hearts and minds. Until we solve the problem of sundown neighborhoods and towns, we do not have a chance of solving America’s race problem.
This series is available in a handy 40 page pdf that includes journaling space for the personal questions.
An Integrated Life
a series studying the book Sundown Towns by James Loewen
Part 2 – Our Racist Foundations
Part 3 – What Are We Taught Is Normal?
Part 4 – All Whites Are Responsible
Part 5 – What Are You Known For Supporting
Part 6 – What Makes You Stay Silent?
Part 7 – Gravitating Towards the Comfortable
Part 8 – Social Exclusion
Part 9 – Restrictive Covenants and Governments
Part 10 – Do You Live in a Sundown Town? Before You Say No…
Part 11 – Still Forming Sundown Towns Today
Part 12 – Sundown Suburbs = NIMBY
Part 13 – City Schools, Suburb Schools
Part 14 – What Are You Supporting With Your Way of Life?
Part 15 – Living In Fear
Part 16 – An Historical Comparison
Part 17 – Hidden Fault Lines
Part 18 – Reputations Are Important
Part 19 – Until We Solve the Problem of Sundown Neighborhoods…
Part 20 – The TL;DR Version