Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Parts I, II, III, IV, and V, and VI.
Part VII: After Sundown
I used to wonder why there weren't more black people in places like Seattle -- which, as urban places go, is pretty damned white -- and Idaho, where I grew up, or Montana, where I lived for a several years, both of which make Seattle look positively chocolate in comparison. Like most everyone else, I just chalked it up to the climate and the pre-existing lack of colored folks: they didn't live here, I assumed, because they'd naturally feel isolated.
It was, we presumed, just one of those accidents of history and demographics.
I also would sometimes hear black leaders and community members in Seattle talk about the somewhat hidden, institutionalized nature of racism in places like the Pacific Northwest, where people can be nice to your face and not so nice in action. And they would sometimes phrase it in stark terms, usually something along these lines:
- "I would rather deal with Southerners, where the racism is up front and in your face, than people in places like this, where it's all nice and hidden."
Now, granted that hidden racism is buried in our culture everywhere, and that the mask of civility that people around here call "politeness" is often just a cover for ugly personal beliefs and cold-heartedness.
Still, this always seemed slightly illogical to me: Even if you can identify the racism in the culture, isn't a civil mask at least not as intimidating, or frightening, as the ugliness of open racism?
Now, however, after having read James Loewen's remarkable work Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism -- and having further explored the truth of the subject in my own neck of the woods -- I think I'm beginning to understand. At least a little.
Sundown Towns, for my money, is the most significant work on race relations in America written in the past decade. Even the Washington Post review observed that it "deserves to become an instant classic in the fields of American race relations, urban studies and cultural geography."
Unfortunately, the Post (which also ran a separate feature on the book) was one of the very few major media outlets that even bothered to review it. (The Dallas Morning News was another.) None of the New York or Los Angeles media noticed, and at the points in between -- where the subject actually mattered the most -- it went virtually unreviewed. Nor did Loewen show up on any cable programs, except C-SPAN.
The media (and general public) reception for Sundown Towns stands in somewhat stark contrast to the fawning reaction that followed the publication, a decade earlier, of the two books for which it is possibly the most effective antidote: The Bell Curve (which attempted to put nice respectable statistical clothing on age-old eugenicist nonsense) and America in Black and White, the Thernstroms' enormously self-congratulatory (for white people) tome on the state of modern race relations. Both were national bestsellers that happened to find big audiences with suburban readers.
Sundown Towns is an effective antidote to both because, unlike the Thernstrom book, which glosses over such matters, it reveals one of the real continuing racial fault lines in America and explains how we got to where we are; and in stark contrast to The Bell Curve, it explodes much of the mythology of race in America, particularly long-held stereotypes about why we live where we do and why blacks have difficulty succeeding in America.
The American landscape it reveals is not the one we have created in our own minds, one in which the bulk of racial bigotry resides south of the Mason-Dixon line, while the enlightened northern states have, comparatively speaking at least, provided both a racial refuge and social justice. Rather, it reveals that racism is not only woven throughout the nation's social fabric, but that the brand of bigotry practiced throughout much of the North was even more noxious in nature than that in the South.
Specifically, while the South actively oppressed its nonwhite population, Americans in most of the rest of the country chose not to even tolerate their presence, and actively engaged in an ongoing campaign of eliminationist violence to drive them out, forcing them to cluster in large urban areas for their own self-protection and survival. The benign, polite white face of suburban and rural America outside the South is revealed as both deeply deceptive and ultimately lethal.
What exactly is a "sundown town"? Loewen defines the term [pp. 28-30] thus:
- A sundown town is any organized jurisdiction that for decades kept African Americans or other groups from living in it and was thus "all white" on purpose.
... Beginning in about 1890 and continuing until 1968, white Americans established thousands of towns across the United States for whites only. Many towns drove out their black populations, then posted sundown signs. ... Other towns passed ordinances barring African Americans after dark or prohibiting them from owning or renting property; still others established such policies by informal means, harassing and even killing those who violated the rule. Some sundown towns similarly kept out Jews, Chinese, Mexicans, Native Americans, or other groups.
Independent sundown towns range from tiny hamlets such as DeLand, Illinois (population 500) to substantial cities such as Appleton, Wisconsin (57,000 in 1970). Sometimes entire counties went sundown, usually when their county seat did. Independent sundown towns were soon joined by "sundown suburbs," which could be even larger: Levittown, on Long Island, had 82,000 residents in 1970, while Livonia, Michigan, and Parma, Ohio, had more than 100,000. Warren, a suburb of Detroit, had a population of 180,000 including just 28 minority families, most of whom lived on a U.S. Army facility.
Outside the traditional South ... probably a majority of all incorporated places kept out African Americans.
Moreover, as he details, the appearance of sundown towns occurred in every region, every state:
- There is reason to believed that more than half of all towns in Oregon, Indiana, Ohio, the Cumberlands, the Ozarks, and diverse other areas were also all-white on purpose. Sundown suburbs are found from Darien, Connecticut, to La Jolla, California, and are even more prevalent; indeed, most suburbs began life as sundown towns.
These towns formed neither naturally nor accidentally, but emerged well after the Civil War as the embodiment of emerging white supremacist beliefs, particularly eugenicist notions about the evils of "race mixing" and the innate inferiority of nonwhite races.
As Loewen explains, in the first quarter-century after the Civil War, African Americans actually fanned out across the country to resettle and start new lives with their newly won freedom. Outside the South, they lived in rural areas and small towns as well as big cities, filling all kinds of occupations:
- [I]n Republican communities, in the period 1865-90, letting in African Americans was seen to be the appropriate, even patriotic thing to do. It was in tune with the times. Many Americans really were trying to give our nation a "new birth of freedom" -- freedom for African Americans -- for which, as Lincoln had suggested, Union soldiers had died at Gettysburg. Opening one's community to black families after the Civil War seemed right -- like opening one's college campus to black families after the Civil Rights Movement a century later. Congress said so: the 1866 Civil Rights Act declared that "citizens of every race and color ... shall have the same right ... to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property." Presidents said so -- James A. Garfield at his inauguration in 1881 ... clearly stated that the nation had granted equal rights to African Americans and that this was fitting and proper. Quakers in particular, abolitionists before the war, now made it their business to welcome African Americans to their communities, hire them as farmworkers, blacksmiths, or domestics, and help them get a start. So did Unitarians, Congregationalists, and some Methodists and Presbyterians. We can see the results in census figures [...]: African Americans went everywhere after the Civil War. By 1890, all across the North -- in northeast Pennsylvania river valleys, in every Indiana county save one, deep in the north woods of Wisconsin, in every county of Montana and California -- African Americans were living and working.
... Northern communities, especially where Republicans were in the majority, enjoyed something of a "springtime of race relations" between 1865 and 1890. During those years, African Americans voted, served in Congress, received some spoils from the Republican Party, worked as barbers, railroad firemen, midwives, mail carriers, and landowning farmers, and played other fully human roles in American society. Their new rights made African Americans optimistic, even buoyant. "Tell them we is risin'!" one ex-slave said to a northern writer, come to see for himself how the races were getting along in the postwar South. The same confidence fueled the black dispersal throughout the postwar North.
But this heyday was short-lived, and by 1890, the beginning of what is known as "the Nadir of race relations" -- which was to last another forty years, until 1930 -- set in. It was the period "when African Americans were forced back into noncitizenship," as Loewen puts it, and it produced what he calls the "Great Retreat" -- the forcible elimination of blacks from rural and suburban communities,from which they fled to larger black communities within a handful of urban centers [pp. 30-31]:
- Unfortunately, "the new order of things" was destined to last only six more years. In 1890, trying to get the federal government to intervene against violence and fraud in southern elections, the Republican senator from Massachusetts, Henry Cabot Lodge, introduced his Federal Elections Bill. It lost by just one vote in the Senate. After its defeat, when Democrats again tarred Republicans [as they had before the Civil War, and since] as "nigger lovers," now the Republicans replied in a new way. Instead of assailing Democrats for denying equal rights to African Americans, they backed away from the subject. The Democrats had worn them down. Thus the springtime of race relations during Reconstruction was short, and it was followed not by summer blooms but by the Nadir winter, and not just in the South but throughout the country. ...
The Republicans' capitulation on race marked the beginning of a long era of overt racial oppression in America, not just in the South but nationally -- though of course Dixie politics played a special role [pp. 33-34]:
- We have seen that the Republicans removed themselves as an effective anti-racist force after about 1891. The Democrats already called themselves "the white man's party." It followed that African Americans played no significant role in either political party from 1892 on. Now regardless of which party controlled it, the federal government stood by idly as white southerners used terror, fraud, and "legal" means to eliminate African American voters. Mississippi pioneered the "legal" means in 1890 when it passed a new state constitution that made it impossible for most black Mississippians to vote or hold public office. All other southern and border states emulated Mississippi by 1907.
In 1894, Democrats in Congress repealed the remaining federal election statutes. Now the Fifteenth Amendment was lifeless, for it had no extant laws to enforce it. In 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the United States Supreme Court declared de jure (by law) racial segregation legal, which caused it to spread in at least twelve northern states. In 1898, Democrats rioted in Wilmington, North Carolina, driving out the mayor and all other Republican officeholders and killing at least twelve African Americans. The McKinley administration did nothing, allowing the coup d'etat to stand. Congress became resegregated in 1901 when Congressman George H. White of North Carolina failed to win re-election owing to the disenfranchisement of black voters in his state. No African American served in Congress again until 1929, and none from the South until 1972.
The deterioration of the status of African Americans was widespread throughout every aspect of society [pp. 36-37]:
- Occupationally, blacks fared even worse. Before the Nadir, African Americans worked as carpenters, masons, foundry and factory workers, postal carriers, and so on. After 1890, in both the North and the South, whites expelled them from these occupations. ...
... Indeed, in some ways the North proceeded to treat African Americans worse than the South did. Ironically, segregation, which grew more entrenched in the South than in the North after the end of Reconstruction in 1877, created some limited opportunities for African American workers in Dixie. If the job was clearly defined as inferior, southern whites were happy to hire African Americans to cook their food, drive their coaches and later their cars, be their "yard boy," even nurse their babies. (The term boy, applied to adult male African Americans, itself implies less than a man.) Thus traditional white southerners rarely drove all African Americans out of their communities. Who would then do the dirty work? During and after slavery, this pattern spread to the North, but only to a limited degree. Around 1900, many white Americans, especially outside the traditional South, grew so racist that they came to abhor contact with African Americans even when that contact expressed white supremacy. If African Americans were inferior, they reasoned, then why employ them? Why tolerate them at all?
The models for driving out the "unwanted" blacks from their communities, like the core attitudes themselves, probably originated in the South, where Indian massacres had eventually given way to lynching as the main expression of the eliminationist impulse.
Often the violence was merely a matter of harsh threats and demands that blacks leave, which were usually complied with fully. An illustrative example was the "race riot" that occurred Sept. 30, 1905, in Harrison, Arkansas:
- A white mob stormed the building and took these Negroes from jail along with several others, to the country, where they were whipped and ordered to leave. The rioters swept through Harrison's black neighborhood with terrible intent. The mob of 20 or 30 men, armed with guns and clubs, reportedly tied men to trees and whipped them, tied men and women together and threw them in a 4-foot hole in Crooked Creek, burned several homes, and warned all Negroes to leave town that night, which most of them did without taking any of their belongings. ... From house to house in the colored section they went, sometimes threatening, sometimes using the lash, always issuing the order that hereafter, 'no Nigger had better let the sun go down on 'em.'
These attitudes came to prevail not just in the South but throughout the country. As Loewen explains [pp. 37-38], it was clear that by the 1890s, most white Americans had convinced themselves that blacks themselves were "the problem":
- How were northern whites to explain to themselves their acquiescence in the white South's obliteration of the political and civil rights of African Americans in places such as Harrison? How could they defend their own increasing occupational and social discrimination against African Americans?
The easiest way would be to declare that African Americans had never deserved equal rights in the first place. After all, went this line of thought, conditions had significantly improved for African Americans. Slavery was over. Now a new generation of African Americans had come of age, never tainted by the "peculiar institution." Why were they still at the bottom? African Americans themselves must be the problem. They must not work hard enough, think as well, or have as much drive, compared to whites. The Reconstruction amendments (Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth) provided African Americans with a roughly equal footing in America, most whites felt. If they were still at the bottom, it must be their own fault.
Ironically, the worse the Nadir got, the more whites blamed blacks for it. The increasing segregation and exclusion led whites to demonize African Americans and their segregated enclaves. African Americans earned less money than whites, had lower standing in society, and no longer held public office pr even voted in much of the nation. Again, no longer could this obvious inequality be laid at slavery's doorstep, for slavery had ended around 1865. Now "white Northerners came to view blacks as disaffected, lazy, and dangerous rabble," according to Heather Richardson. "By the 1890s, white Americans in the North concurred that not only was disfranchisement justified for the 'Un-American Negro,' but that he was by nature confined to a state of 'permanent semi-barbarism.'"
These events were recorded piecemeal at the time, and were rationalized in the press under a number of different theories, the majority of which reflected similar rationalizations regarding lynching: that is, they were only "natural" community responses to the "problem" of African Americans. A New York Times story of July 14, 1902, captures the attitudes fairly well:
- Negro Driven Away
The Last One Leaves Decatur, Ind., Owing to Threats Made
The last Negro has left Decatur, Ind. His departure was caused by the anti-Negro feeling. About a month ago a mob of 50 men drove out all the Negroes who were then making that city their home. Since that time the feeling against the Negro has been intense, so much so that an Anti-Negro Society was organized.
The colored man who has just left came about three weeks, and since that time received many threatening letters. When he appeared on the streets he was insulted and jeered at. An attack was threatened ...
The anti-negroites declare that as Decatur is now cleared of Negroes they will keep it so, and the importation of any more will undoubtedly result in serious trouble.
The chief means of driving out nonwhites was what Donald Horowitz calls "the deadly ethnic riot," wherein one racial or ethnic group takes up arms en masse and attacks another group systematically and thoroughly with the intent of eliminating their presence. As Loewen puts it [p. 92]:
- Often white residents achieved their goals abruptly, even in the middle of the night. In town after town in the United States, especially between 1890 and the 1930s, whites forced out their African American neighbors violently, as they had the Chinese in the West.
... Towns with successful riots wound up all-white, of course, or almost so, and therefore had an ideological interest in suppressing any memory of a black population in the first place, let alone of an unseemly riot that drove them out.
Whites also tried to "cleanse" at least fifteen larger cities of their more substantial nonwhite populations: Denver (of Chinese) in 1880; Seattle (of Chinese) in 1886; Akron in1900; Evansville, Indiana, and Joplin, Missouri, in 1903; Springfield, Ohio, in 1904, 1906, and again in 1908; Springfield, Missouri, in 1906; Springfield, Illinois, in 1908; Youngstown, Ohio, and East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917; Omaha and Knoxville in 1919; Tulsa in 1921; Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1923; and Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1929.
Perhaps the most symbolic of these "race riots" was one that occurred in 1908 in the home and final resting place of Abraham Lincoln -- Springfield, Ill. Philip Dray, in his text At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America [pp. 167-169], notes that "when rioting broke out in August 1908, Springfield was in the midst of preparing for the February 1909 centenary celebration of the birth of the Great Emancipator." By then, evidently, Lincoln's legacy was viewed dimly by his hometown:
- The riot's underlying cause was white anxiety over an influx of Southern blacks into two Springfield neighborhoods, Badlands and the Levee. The violence began on August 14, when a lynch mob surrounded the city jail and demanded two black men -- one accused of assaulting a married white woman, the other of murdering a white man who'd tried to stop him from outraging his daughter. The sheriff asked the fire department to race its trucks up and down the street to distract the crowd while he spirited the two out of town in an automobile owned by Harry Loper, proprietor of Springfield's best-known restaurant. When the mob realized it had been fooled, it surged toward Loper's restaurant and inflicted considerable damage. Cursing the town's most famous son and his Emancipation Proclamation, and uttering such oaths as "Lincoln brought them to Springfield and we will run them out!," the crowd then moved on to the Levee and Badlands and began setting homes and stores on fire. They also burned shops run by Jews and other known "nigger lovers."
The state militia, summoned from Decatur, thirty-nine miles away, did not arrive until the middle of the night, and so for several hours the crowd roamed virtually unrestrained -- smashing windows, looting and burning black-owned homes and businesses to their foundations. After much destruction of property, the mob targeted the home of a black barber named Scott Burton, who, fearing for his life, fired on the rioters with a shotgun. Whites tackled Burton when he tried to slip out a side door, grabbed a clothesline from an adjacent backyard, and strung him up in a tree. With flames illuminating the scene the mob filled Burton's suspended body with bullets before perpetrating "fiendish cruelties" upon it with pocketknives and shards of glass.
While the lynchers were preoccupied with fighting over the souvenirs from the Burton lynching, a line of militia approached. When an order to leave the area was ignored, the soldiers fired into the crowd, wounding several people. Only after this confrontation did the crowd disperse.
The chaos resumed the next morning, when bands of rioters stormed those black residential areas that had been left unprotected by the militia. ... Once again, the militia restored order, although by the morning of the sixteenth, after two consecutive nights of street violence and arson, Springfield was a smoking shambles. Whole blocks had been leveled. Citizens who'd lost their homes wandered the streets like refugees in a time of war, along with curiosity seekers from Chicago and St. Louis who'd come to view the damage. Many of the visitors went first to the spot where Burton had been lynched, and by noon the tree on which he'd died had disappeared, torn apart by souvenir hunters. Postcard views of the damaged buildings and a photograph of one of the alleged rape victims were selling briskly. Meanwhile, the city's newspapers reminded readers that the trouble had been ignited by the "hellish assault" that had been perpetrated by a "Negro fiend," thus arousing a feeling of righteous indignation among the people of the city. The articles defended the necessity of the riot's violence and praised the "good citizens" who, due to the conditions present in the city, "could find no other remedy" in dealing with black "misconduct, general inferiority [and] unfitness for free institutions."
In addition to the two blacks lynched, four whites had been killed and hundreds of people of both races had been injured, and the costs of the damage were staggering. Much of the worst violence had taken place close to Lincoln's home and his tomb. And although the riot was over, feelings of racial animosity had hardly cooled. A white boycott of black businesses was under way, and black people had been threatened with violence if they dared retaliate for the riot. In a neighboring hamlet, a sign posted at an interurban stop read: ALL NIGGERS ARE WARNED OUT OF TOWN BY MONDAY, 12 PM SHARP. (SIGNED) BUFFALO SHARP SHOOTERS.
Sundown towns were unusually popular in Illinois; Loewen reports that he was able to identify 475 of them. They also enjoyed great popularity in states like Indiana and Oklahoma.
These "race riots" often occurred whenever any black community tried to stand up to lynching violence. When this happened, the "race riot" actually comprised wholesale lethal assaults on black communities by whites. They became particularly prevalent during the "Red Summer" of 1919, when such riots broke out in some 26 American cities.
The most notable of these race riots occurred in 1921 in Tulsa, where a prosperous black population was literally bombed out of existence over two days of complete lawlessness. The rioting was set off by a black youth's alleged assault on a local white girl that later turned out to be harmless consensual contact. The youth was promptly arrested without incident, but the local press played it up with garish headlines that ignored the real nature of the incident, and one Tulsa newspaper publicly called for the young man's lynching.
This attempt, however, met with real resistance from the black community. When a group of local blacks attempted to ward off a lynch mob by meeting them at the jailhouse, the fighting broke out. Soon the entire district was swarmed over by gun-wielding whites who began mowing down black residents at random, setting fire to homes and businesses, and looting, raping and maiming. There are reports that an airplane flew over the black community and dropped incendiary bombs. By the time the violence had subsided, as many as three hundred black people were believed killed, many of them buried in a mass grave, and thirty-five city blocks lay charred. The death toll has never been properly calculated, largely because of the ways the bodies were disposed of, but some counts reach as high as 300 or more. And Tulsa's African-American community, at one time known as the "Negro Wall Street" because of its prosperousness, was never the same. Most of the survivors simply left.
The Ku Klux Klan, which had played a formative role in the lynching phenomenon generally, was closely connected with the formation of sundown towns, especially in their second incarnation as a national organization after 1916. As the Wikipedia entry on the Klan explains:
- The second Ku Klux Klan rose to great prominence and spread from the South into the Midwest and Northern states and even into Canada. At its peak, most of the membership resided in Midwestern states. Through sympathetic elected officials, the KKK controlled the governments of Tennessee, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Oregon in addition to those of the Southern Democratic legislatures. It even claimed to have inducted Republican President Warren Harding at the White House. Klan delegates played a significant role at the 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York City, often called the "Klanbake Convention" as a result. The convention initially pitted Klan-backed candidate William McAdoo against New York Governor Al Smith, who drew the opposition of the group because of his Catholic faith. After days of stalemates and rioting, both candidates withdrew in favor of a compromise. Klan delegates defeated a Democratic Party platform plank that would have condemned their organization. On July 4, 1924 thousands of Klansmen converged on a nearby field in New Jersey where they participated in cross burnings, burned effigies of Smith, and celebrated their defeat of the platform plank.
David M. Chalmers describes the Klan's national political aspirations thoroughly in Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan, particularly its brief reign in statehouses scattered across the country [pp. 200-201]:
- In 1922, the Klan helped elect governors in Georgia, Alabama, California, and Oregon, and came close to knocking Missouri's Jim Reed out of the U.S. Senate. It was reported that perhaps as many as seventy-five members of the lower house had received help from Klan votes. An undetermined, and unguessable, number of congressmen, veterans, and newcomers, had actually joined the hooded order, and E.Y. Clarke was asking the local chapters to suggest likely candidates for the future. The next year, the Klan continued to expand, with its greatest strength developing in the upper Mississippi Valley and in the Great Lakes kingdom of D.C. Stephenson.
Eventually, the Klan stumbled nationally and crumbled apart, in large part due to the chaotic personalities and paranoiac egos it tended to attract as leaders. But its continuing appeal in the Midwest and elsewhere is reflected in the fact that one of its eventual offshoots, the Independent Klan of America, had its national headquarters in Muncie, Indiana.
It's worth noting that in many sundown towns, there were "exceptions" to the rules. Many such towns had one or two black residents, usually servants of local wealthy landowners, or people in subservient positions (hotel workers, nurses, janitors, shoeshiners) who had longtime resident status.
How did they manage it? As Loewen tells it, there were several survival strategies involved, including an emphasis on their eccentricity and individuality, which played to the way whites often responded to the cognitive dissonance of knowing blacks who were fine, upstanding, individuals, in contrast with prevailing stereotypes depicting them as lascivious criminals and rapists. That is, they made exceptions for them. Loewen cites an interview with a woman Klan member from Indiana:
- "You get several of them together and they become niggers. Individually, they're fine people."
There was also a tendency to play to white stereotypes about negroes. All of this was designed to encourage whites to identify them as being on their side:
- Overt identification with the white community was another survival tactic. Such blacks became "Tonto figures" -- taking pains to associate with the "white side," differentiated from the hordes of blacks outside the city limits. White workers in Austin, Minnesota, repeatedly expelled African Americans, and Austin became a sundown town, but like many others, it allowed one African American to stay -- the shoeshine "boy." Union member John Winkola tells about him:
- And I'll tell you a good one: So one time we had Frank -- I forget his last name -- he was shining shoes in the barbershop and then afterwards he bell-hopped for the bus in town here, and everybody liked him ... He'd never go in the packing house because he knew he couldn't, he didn't want to go there.
So one day I was walking along ... and here came a couple of niggers, and they stood there by the bridge facing the packing house, and ... [Frank] says, "Y'know, John," he says, "when the damn niggers start comin' into this town, I'm gonna get the hell outta here." And he was black! He was black! He didn't want them to come into town either ... But we never had no trouble with Frank at all.
Indeed they didn't; Frank knew with which side of the color line he had to identify if he was to remain in Austin.
... Kathleen Blee, author of Women of the Klan, collected a good example from an Indiana woman in the 1980s: "We didn't hate the niggers. We had the Wills family that lived right here in [this] township. And they were like pet coons to us. I went to school with them." Often they got known by nicknames, such as "Snowball" for the only African American in West Bend, Wisconsin, or "Nigger Slim" for the father of the only black family in Salem, Illinois.
... The Austin, Minnesota, story shows another ideological payoff that allowing one household to stay when all others are driven out can have for whites, as they can claim not to be racist: "We're not against all African Americans after all -- look at Frank!" More accurately, whites can claim to be appropriately racist. The problem lies with those other African Americans -- "the damn niggers." Even Frank -- "and he was black" -- agrees. Thus instead of allowing their positive feelings about George Washington Maddox or Elizabeth Davis to prompt some questioning of their exclusionary policies, whites in Medford, Oregon, and Casey, Illinois, merely emphasized how exceptional these individuals were. In turn, this allowed whites to affirm once more how inferior other African Americans were, in their eyes.
- And I'll tell you a good one: So one time we had Frank -- I forget his last name -- he was shining shoes in the barbershop and then afterwards he bell-hopped for the bus in town here, and everybody liked him ... He'd never go in the packing house because he knew he couldn't, he didn't want to go there.
Things, fortunately, have changed quite a bit since all this was true, though we continue to deal with the legacy of these times. Today, minorities who identify with anti-minority interests -- particularly the anti-multiculturalists of the paleoconservative right -- (and this certainly includes gay Republicans) no longer are doing so as a survival technique. Rather, it's a technique that creates all kinds of opportunities, both financial and otherwise.
Likewise, movement conservatives have proven skilled at appealing to sundown-town sensibilities without playing the race card nakedly. The key to the transformation of the G.O.P. from the Party of Lincoln to the Party of Lott lay in its adoption, in the early 1970s, of the so-called "Southern Strategy," which used coded appeals to white racists in the South. But these appeals had a broader effect as well. As Loewen notes [pp. 372-73]:
- As a result of such leadership, Republicans have carried most sundown towns since 1968, sometimes achieving startling unaninimity. ... So the "southern strategy" turned out to be a "southern and sundown town strategy," especially in sundown suburbs. Macomb County, for example, the next county north of Detroit, voted overwhelmingly for Wallace in the 1972 Democratic primary. Wooed by Nixon, many of these voters then became "Reagan Democrats" and now are plain Republicans. The biggest single reason, according to housing attorney Alexander Polikoff, was anxiety about "blacks trapped in ghettos trying to penetrate white neighborhoods."
Indeed, the epicenter of the "sundown" mentality shifted over the years from small rural towns to the suburbs, particularly since the latter were so often specifically designed to facilitate white flight away from minorities. Loewen explains [pp. 109-110]:
- Suburbs used the largest array of different weapons for becoming and staying all-white, beginning around 1900, although ultimately they too relied on violence. It is important to understand that the whiteness of America's suburbs was no accident. On the contrary, all-white suburbs were achieved. As Dorothy Newman wrote in 1978, "Residential separation rests on a system of formal rules (though no longer worded in racial terms -- the terms are illegal) and informal but carefully adhered-to practices which no amount of legislation has been able to penetrate."
... Elite suburbs that were built by a single developer were especially likely to begin life all-white on purpose. Tuxedo Park, New York, perhaps the richest of them all, may have gone sundown first, even before 1890. Affluent whites founded it "as a club community and maintained that discipline for nearly 50 years" ...
As the twentieth century wore on, Americans continued to build planned communities. Every planned town that I know of -- indeed, every community in America founded after 1890 and before 1960 by a single developer or owner -- kept out African Americans from its beginnings. Chronologically, these included Highland Park near Dallas in 1907-13 and Mariemont near Cincinnati in 1914, both of which won fame for their innovative shopping centers. Shaker Heights, east of Cleveland, was designed to be "utopian" and excluded blacks, Jews, and Catholics from its inception. Near Los Angeles, planned all-white suburbs set up around this time include Beverly Hills, Culver City, Palos Verdes Estates, Tarzana (developed by Edgar Rice Burroughs, from the proceeds of his Tarzan novels), and several others. Ebenezer Howard's "garden city" concept, imported from England, influenced at least seven suburbs or exurbs built around World War II; Radburn, New Jersey, in 1929; Greenbelt, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., Greenhills, Ohio, near Cincinnati, Greendale, Wisconsin, near Milwaukee, and Norris, Tennessee, in the 1930s; Richland, Washington, in 1942; and Park Forest, near Chicago, in the 1950s. All these planned communities were developed as sundown towns.
The insularity of suburban life also allowed the whites living within them to rationalize away the absence of nonwhites. Loewen notes that they had a variety of explanations, including climate and the lack of jobs, but most especially the notion that blacks didn't want to live in the suburbs [pp. 142-143]:
- Some theories emphasize social isolation: why should African Americans move into out-of-the-way hamlets distant from centers of African American populations? In short, the lack of blacks was just "natural," or resulted from historical coincidence. I began my research with this hypothesis -- that most all-white towns never happened to draw any black residents -- but it didn't hold up. ... Before 1890, however, African Americans moved to counties and towns throughout America ... -- even isolated places such as northern Maine, northern Wisconsin, and Idaho north of the Snake River Valley. Then during the Great Retreat, they withdrew to the larger cities and a mere handful of smaller towns. ... In other words, because social isolation cannot explain the increases in black population in northern counties before 1890, it cannot explain why those increases reversed after that date. Something different went on after 1890.
Social isolation has even been used to explain overwhelmingly white suburbs: whites have imagined that African Americans prefer the excitement of the big city to such suburban values as home ownership, peace and quiet, tree-lined streets, and good school systems. This notion is absurd, as historian Andrew Wiese showed in 2004. Wiese summarized survey research as far back as the 1940s, finding no support for this stereotype. Among a sample of six hundred middle-income black families in New York City in 1948, for example, nine out of ten wanted to buy their own homes, and three in four wanted to move to suburbia. Many African American families have the same fervent desire for a patch of ground that white suburbanites manifest.
Other whites seem to think that it's somehow "natural" for blacks to live in the inner city, whites in the outer suburbs. This idea is a component of what law professor John Boger calls "the national sense that [residential segregation] is inescapable." ...
Indeed, blaming the whiteness of elite sundown suburbs on their wealth actually reverses the causality of race and class. It is mostly the other way around: racial and religious exclusion came first, not class. Suburbs that kept out blacks and Jews became more prestigious, so they attracted the very rich. The absence of African Americans itself became a selling point, which in turn helped these suburbs become so affluent because houses there commanded higher prices. ...
It would be one thing if, in the wake of the Civil Rights Era, Americans living in these former communities actively worked to overcome the segregationist mindset they represent. But instead, the legacy of sundown towns is one that reinforces, generationally, the false stereotypes that created them a century ago. Loewen observes [pp. 320-321]:
- During the past 25 years, while teaching race relations to thousands of white people and discussing the subject with thousands more, I have found that white Americans expound about the alleged character and characteristics of African Americans in inverse proportion to their contact and experience with them. Isolation and ignorance aren't the only reasons why residents of sundown towns and suburbs are so ready to believe and pass on the worst stereotypes about African Americans, however. They also have a need for denial.
The idea that living in an all-white community leads residents to defend living in an all-white community exemplifies the well-established psychological principle of cognitive dissonance. No one likes to think of himself or herself as a bad person, argued Leon Festinger, who established this principle. People who live in sundown towns believe in the golden rule -- or say they do -- just like people who live in interracial towns. ...
What could make living in an all-white town right? The old idea that African Americans constitute the problem, of course. In 1914, Thomas Bailey, a professor in Mississippi, told what is wrong with that line of thinking: "The real problem is not the Negro, but the white man's attitude toward the Negro." Sundown towns only made the problem worse. Having driven out or kept out African Americans (or perhaps Chinese Americans or Jewish Americans), their residents then became more racist and more likely to believe the worst about the excluded groups.
That's why the talk in sundown towns brims with amazing stereotypes about African Americans, put forth confidently with nary an African American in their lives. The ideology intrinsic to sundown towns -- that African Americans ... are the problem -- prompts their residents to believe and pass on all kinds of negative generalizations as fact. They are the problem because they choose segregation -- even though "they" don't, as we have seen. Or they are the problem owing to their criminality -- confirmed by the stereotype -- misbehavior that "we" avoid by excluding or moving away from them.
Of course, such stereotypes are hardly limited to sundown towns. Summarizing a nationwide 1991 poll, Lynne Duke found that a majority of whites believed that "blacks and Hispanics are likely to prefer welfare to hard work and tend to be lazier than whites, more prone to violence, less intelligent, and less patriotic." Even worse, in sundown towns and suburbs, statements such as these usually evoke no open disagreement at all. Because most listeners in sundown towns have never lived near African Americans, they have no experiential foundation from which to question the negative generalities that they hear voiced. So the stereotypes usually go unchallenged: blacks are less intelligent, lazier, and lack drive, and that's why they haven't built successful careers.
Sundown towns and their continuing legacy have also had a profound psychological impact on blacks, including the internalization of low expectations, and the exclusion of blacks from cultural capital [pp. 353-355]:
- Confining most African Americans to the opposite of sundown suburbs -- majority black, inner-city neighborhoods -- also restricts their access to what Patterson calls cultural capital: "those learned patterns of mutual trust, insider knowledge about how things really work, encounter rituals, and social sensibilities that constitute the language of power and success." ...
Making the suburbs unreachable for nonwhites similarly restricts them from making the social connections that are critical to forming networks that help us find work and move ahead in the workforce. Loewen notes that "the trouble is, these networks are segregated, so important information never reaches black America. ... Sundown suburbanites know only whites, by definition, except perhaps a few work contacts. Thus sundown suburbs contribute to economic inequality by race."
Loewen also notes [pp. 369-370]:
- In his famous book An American Dilemma, written as World War II wound down, Gunnar Myrdal noted that residential segregation has been a key factor accounting for the subordinate status of African Americans. Separating people geographically makes it much easier to provide better city services to some than to others, and indeed to label some people as better than others.
The myths and attitudes engendered by the "sundown towns" and their legacy is constantly reinforced by conservative-movement propaganda that argues against such attempts to break up the entrenched segregation they created as affirmative action. It's easy to find pundits like Thomas Sowell -- whose arguments sound like those proferred by the "exceptions" -- offering commentary that obliviates the real history of black Americans:
- Blacks only a generation or two out of slavery also had higher rates of employment and lower rates of crime than today.
What critics like Sowell neglect to mention, of course, is that there are real historical reasons for that -- namely, black Americans were given more opportunities to succeed in the first generation after the end of slavery than they were given for most of the succeeding century.
Fortunately, at least, there are some historians who recognize that addressing the legacy of "sundown town" eliminationism in America is critical to resolving the continuing racial divide in the country, especially since so much of it is a product of those practices and our failure to even acknowledge them, let alone atone for them.
Here in Seattle, University of Washington history professor James Gregory has begun digging through the records, and we at least are beginning to get a little better glimpse of our true historical selves:
- Seattle thinks of itself as a liberal city, one that has a reasonable record of racial integration. But we are also a city with a short memory. One of the things we have been forgetting is that only a few decades ago, Seattle was a sharply segregated city. It was a city that kept non-whites out of most jobs and most neighborhoods, even out of stores, restaurants, hotels and hospitals.
... Until the late 1960s, Seattle north of the ship canal was a "sundown" zone. That meant that virtually no people of color lived there and it also meant that African Americans were expected to be out of the area when the workday ended. After dark, a black man in particular was likely to be stopped by the police, questioned about his business and informed that he had better not be seen in the neighborhood again.
North Seattle was not alone. Queen Anne, Magnolia and West Seattle also were sundown zones. The suburbs were even worse. Shoreline, Lake Forest Park, Bothell, Bellevue, Burien, even White Center, vigorously and explicitly excluded people of color. But the ship canal was a special kind of boundary, an unmistakable dividing line between the part of Seattle where anyone might live and the part of Seattle that was off-limits to those whose skin was not white.
Until the early 1950s, North Seattle was also home to Coon Chicken Inn, which for almost 20 years stood as a beacon of bigotry on Lake City Way Northeast. Whites of a certain disposition made it a hugely popular restaurant and no one could drive along Lake City Way without noticing the massive grotesque "coon" head and the big-lipped mouth that served as the restaurant's front door.
Of course, eliminationism never settles down even after it is sated. In America, the impulse proved so thoroughly ingrained that, even as lynching began to decline, whites began finding new "threats" from other races and other peoples.
Foremost on the list: Asians and other "unassimilable" immigrants who began arriving in greater numbers on our shores as the 20th century was dawning.
Next: 'White Man's Land'