Friday, May 20, 2011

Book Review: Sundown Towns by James Loewen

I've been meaning to read Sundown Towns for a while now. It's come highly recommended by a number of people whose opinions on race relations and sociology I greatly value. Believe it or not, I had no idea what a sundown town was until about a year and a half ago, when my boyfriend at the time mentioned that the town he was working in (somewhere in Oregon) used to have a sign at the outskirts telling black people to not let the sun set on them there. I was dumbfounded. Having lived in a number of cities, I knew all about housing segregation, but I had no idea that there were (and are!) hundreds, if not thousands, of cities which refuse to allow black people to even live there-- and drive them out with violence or threats of it if they try. Ironically, that's probably because I'm from the South. With the exception of parts of Appalachia, sundown towns are rare here. They're most common in the Midwest (that's where the bulk of the lingering ones are), though they originally existed across the West and Northeast as well (most of these have since been integrated). Given that many people erroneously believe that all racism in the US is located in the South, the reality of sundown towns and their effects on society had never been acknowledges, much less studied, until James Loewen decided to take a crack at it. 

Sundown Towns is, in a lot of ways, the only book of its kind. While other works have mentioned their existence (often falsely situating them in the South), only Loewen has compiled an extensive list of towns, documenting their histories and cultures so as to explain why they went sundown in the first place and explore whether or not they continue to be to this day. It was a very challenging endeavor; as we all know, nobody wants to 'fess up to being a racist, especially not to a pencil-necked academic outsider. Loewen had to rely on a mix of oral histories (from those willing to talk to him), census figures, old newspaper articles about racial violence in small towns (the ones he could find that hadn't been expunged by historians attempting to whitewash their towns' history), and, of course, digging trough town histories themselves, looking for inconsistencies in the story. He was able to confirm the existence of over a thousand towns, though he estimates that there were anywhere from three to fifteen thousand during their heyday. 

Beyond identifying sundown towns and describing their history and ongoing existence, Loewen does an excellent job in delineating precisely why sundown towns, and housing segregation as a whole, is bad for society. All-white suburbs, the descendants of sundown towns, Loewen argues, both provide shelters and breeding grounds for racists. Racists move into an area, ensure that other, undesirable races stay out, and then start to influence the community as a whole, even members who may not have previously held negative attitudes towards other races, especially children and young adults. By grounding exclusion in the language of money and social class, those who inhabit the suburbs minimize the true nature of racism in housing segregation, effectively blaming the victims. 

Meanwhile, suburbs are often leeches on the cities they surround: they don't pay taxes to contribute to the city, yet their inhabitants use the infrastructure of the city (roads, bridges, sidewalks, buildings), the city's cultural attractions, and they also unload their "undesirables" into the city's public health system by refusing to allow homeless shelters, low-income housing, and any kind of medical treatment facility for the poor to be built in their environs. Since they're not paying for much by way of infrastructure or public services, they can funnel their money into their school systems, a luxury that cities simply don't have. I'll spare you my feelings on the way that American school systems are organized, but suffice it to say: the way public school systems are organized and funded reinforces unequal socioeconomic statuses, and since black children are more likely to be in poorly-funded schools, they're less likely to succeed later. 

Sundown Towns isn't all doom and gloom, though. Loewen provides a series of potential solutions to desegregate holdout sundown towns as well as affluent, all-white suburbs and to ameliorate the problems they've caused. In the years since 2001, when Sundown Towns was published, some things have gotten better. Others, clearly, have not, but I remain optimistic.

Illuminating. 5 out of 5 stars.

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