Current Day Sundown Towns and Racism in Modern America

Written by Rewindingblack

Sundown towns are not part of Americans’ discourse on race relations, despite the fact that they form a foundational aspect of it. It seems that our linear, historical narrative of American history has confined “racism in America” to the deep South and the years of Jim Crow laws. In short, we have come to think that racism is confined mostly to Confederate flag-waving southerners and even more disturbing, that it’s a problem we’ve managed to largely “fix.”

Of course, the story is far more complicated, and it turns out that these towns played (and still do) a major role in how African-Americans are treated. What is a Sundown town? They were–or rather, are–small, all-white areas (“towns”) in which African-Americans were banned from residing. In fact, any inauspicious “colored” person who found him or herself in these racially hermetic communities could face harassment, violence, or death. The name, “sundown town” comes from the signs posted on city limits that read, “Whites Only After Dark,” or some variation of the like. This writer came across this information while compiling research for my new book, titled: Good Advice Is Just That! (Circa 1929).

The most shocking aspect of sundown towns isn’t their professed hatred for African-Americans, but the fact that they were not located in the South. This is a surprising fact for many. More disturbing is the fact that, since their origins, their numbers have not diminished very greatly in the U.S.

Sundown towns have been around since 1890 and between then and 1930 (even through the 1950s) they began sprawling throughout the west and Midwest. According to the book, Sundown Towns by James Loewen, places like Elwood, Indiana had African-Americans physically threatened,
even in 2002. Since the last century and through today Elwood has a zero black Black population and hosts an annual Ku Klux Klan parade. In fact, the “progressive” village of Oak Park, Ill, now heralded as a modern image of racial harmony and inclusion for its middle to upper income residents, was considered a sundown town, by virtue of its neglible minority population as recently as the ”60’s.” As a matter of fact; the state of Illinois itself has one of the largest sundown town populations—it is estimated that about 145 exist.

Furthermore, Loewen’s research suggests that the “modern” sundown town can be a neighborhood or a suburb that is all-white. Thus, the idea that “Blacks simply don’t live” in certain places exists, historically, because they were banned from and threatened in those very places. What we see today as a conspicuously white neighborhood very likely has a “sundown” history or angle.

The New Sundown Town Mentality

Sundown towns were not just places, but a mentality (a way of thinking). This is a crucial aspect in understanding what sundown towns mean for race relations today. In the 1890s, this “sundown” mentality started as one of racial segregation, but today the sundown town mentality has taken the form of economic segregation and inequality.

The truth is, African-Americans moved to northern cities and were confined to ghettos not because they chose to, but because they needed to in order to live normal lives. As such (something with which even Loewen agrees) the poverty and under-education among African-Americans is a result of their exclusion from wealthier suburban areas and better school districts.

Mostly white and all-White neighborhoods, historically, have better schools, more safety and police involvement, and better infrastructure. African-Americans have been confined to inferior, urban areas and have had more limited opportunities. No matter what conservative Republican politicians like Paul Ryan will have their “base” voters believe, the lack of economic security among “urban males” has little to do with their supposed lack of initiative, and everything to do with the sub-par opportunities they’ve been given.

Despite our Fair Housing laws and standards, African-Americans are still dealt an inferior hand when it comes to housing (higher prices in some areas, or a set of “deed-restrictions” to bind residents).

Perhaps most interesting about the sundown mentality is that those towns provided a kind of pastoral retreat for racist whites. In the 1950s Detroit, for example, whites began to move to the suburbs in droves, and according to a NY Times article on the subject, they left because of a “desire for a little green space, new housing, better schools, and freedom from crime. Few of them acknowledged the racial motive behind white flight, that words like “freedom from crime” were code for moving away from Blacks.

Indeed, one could go further and say that the desire for fresher air and greener space was a sublimated desire for racial purity. Sundown towns provide the racially pristine community that racist whites have craved, and they still do in the form of picture-perfect white picket fences and a driveway with a Golden Retriever jumping out to meet its owners.

The Urban Myth and Sundown Towns

It is important to further examine the urban myth created and perpetuated by the sundown town mentality. African-Americans, especially today, are associated with urban landscapes and poverty. In fact, the attachment is so prevalent that African-Americans themselves are hard-pressed to overcome it. We have almost taken it for granted that Blacks and other minorities prefer to live in cities and crowded apartments rather than houses. We have, to quote the NY Times, “attributed the whiteness of the suburbs to black racial inferiority: blacks, they said, did not have the discipline to own homes.”

One must recall the bombastic comments made in the last presidential elections (particularly by Rick Santorum) regarding the connection of African-Americans to welfare. According to Santorum (though he is not the only one), African-American people are mostly the ones on welfare and they use the system purely out of choice. Thus, we have created a phantom culture in our minds–one in which African-Americans choose to live and operate on the margins of society despite mainstream American society has offering them “plenty of chances.” It should be added that this mentality applies not just to blacks, but to Latino’s as well.

Sundown towns give us a glimpse into a part of white America in the 19th and 20th century that was overtly racist. African-Americans were believed to be inferior because of their race and biology. Today, racism is prevalent but instead of labeling it “racism,” we talk about “gentrification” or “income gaps.” For instance, people would agree that Los Angeles (a city which is thought of as fairly progressive) is divided in terms of income, but few would argue that there are plenty of upscale sundown towns in the L.A. county area, with the poorer minorities concentrated in East and Downtown L.A. and wealthier (mostly white) residents in suburbs. A great number of the Latinos that you will see in Beverly Hills work as nannies and cleaning staff, and let us not even mention the fact that the city still reels from the Rodney King riots in the 90s.

As such, even though 2014’s June unemployment rate (reported in July) is at 6.1 percent for Americans, the lowest since the early 90’s; it is important to look at the income gap and social inequality today as a phenomenon deeply tied to and even caused by racism. The idea of sundown towns has radically changed the way we look at race relations today and is making us aware of the fact that we have not yet arrived at an ideal and tolerant society.

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