Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Hidden Wound: "Sundown Towns"

Reading this post by Juan Cole on the unrest in France, of all things, I came across this paragraph:

(Americans who code themselves as "white" are often surprised to discover that "white people" created the inner cities here by zoning them for settlement by racial "minorities," excluding the minorities from the nicer parts of the cities and from suburbs. As late as the 1960s, many European-Americans were willing to sign a "covenant" not to sell their houses to an African-American, Chinese-American or a Jewish American. In fact, in the US, the suburbs were built, most often with de facto government subsidies in the form of highways and other perquisites, as an explicit means of racial segregation. Spatial segregation protected "white" businesses from competition from minority entrepreneurs, who couldn't open shops outside their ghettos. In France, government inputs were used to create "outer cities," but many of the same forces were at work.) The French do not have Jim Crow laws, but de facto residential segregation is a widespread and intractable problem.
And it reminded me of an interview I'd heard on Pacifica with James Loewen regarding his new book Sundown Towns. Growing up in the South, I'd always heard about the warning against towns where certain people (usually African Americans, but by my youth the warning was more generic, and we applied it to "hippies" and other "radicals") who shouldn't be caught in town when the sun went down. But I always thought it was just a vesitigal bit of racism, the sort of "KKK under the skin" that always lurked in the Deep South, and even in the East Texas of my youth.

But apparently it was another bit of American apartheid, much like the segregation Juan Cole mentions.

Perhaps that shouldn't surprise me; Loewen says the topic has never been written about before. And he's stirred a discussion that plainly hasn't yet occurred in this country:

Loewen's research is exhaustive and interesting, and stands as a powerful refutation of the idea that contemporary racial segregation results from voluntary choices by private actors. Loewen documents the prevalence of municipal ordinances that prohibited African Americans from residing in particular towns and shows how these ordinances were supplemented by ugly roadsigns at the town limits stating, "Ni--er, Don't let the sun set on you in [this town]."
And it's almost odd how hidden this was from us, since Loewen finds there were 472 "sundown towns" in Illinois (he started out thinking there were only 50 or so), and 10,000 such "towns" across the country.

I can't find reference to it in the interviews with Loewen I've found on the web, but in the Pacifica interview he pointed out that large urban areas like Chicago shifted over 50 years from predominantly white to predominantly black, largely due to the effect of "sundown ordinances" in small and rural towns. And then, as Juan Cole points out, segregation kicked in there, too.

This is a heritage my daughter won't even remember, but the effects will be with us for generations. Will we begin to face up to our complicity in such a system? Will we begin to understand that Dom Crossan has a point when he identifies the teachings of Jesus as centered in the claim that "Only the destitute are innocent"?

Or will we continue to blame the victim? After all, it's not our fault all those poor blacks "chose" to live in the "bottoms" of the 9th Ward. Is it?

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