Sundown Towns: A Hidden
Dimension of American Racism
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by James W. Loewen
Format: Hardcover, 576pp
Pub. Date: October 2005
Publisher: New Press, The
Book Review by Kam Williams
’Beginning in about 1890 and continuing until 1968, white Americans established thousands of towns across the United States for whites only. A ’sundown town’ is any organized jurisdiction that, for decades, was all-white on purpose. 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.
All this residential exclusion is bad for our nation. In fact, residential segregation is one reason race continues to be such a problem in America.
The ghetto isn't the problem. Exclusion is the problem. The elite sundown suburb is the problem.
As soon as we realize that the problem in America is white supremacy, rather than black existence or black inferiority, then it becomes clear that sundown towns and suburbs are an intensification of the problem, not a solution to it. So long as racial inequality is encoded in where one can live, the United States will face continuing racial tension, if not overt conflict.’
’Excerpted from the Introduction
Over the years, I have frequently encountered roadblocks while attempting to rent or purchase a home. I wish I had a dime for every time a realtor informed me over the phone that a house or apartment was available, only to turn around and suddenly say that the place had just been taken when they saw that I was black.
I have heard similar stories of frustration from many other African-American friends, such as a very successful Brooklyn restaurateur who was repeatedly blocked every time he tried to relocate his business to a more upscale location. I even have a friend who works in real estate who told me he had found it impossible to buy in a certain town, despite a willingness to meet the asking price.
Now the racist roots of this persistent phenomenon have been exposed by James W. Loewen in Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism.
Loewen, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Vermont, is also the author of a couple of other eye-opening treatises, namely, Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America.
Painstakingly researched, extensively annotated and illustrated with damning photographic evidence, the book effectively proves that for most of the 20th Century, thousands of communities all across the country designated themselves as ’White Only.’ This meant that blacks, and often Asians, Native Americans and Jews as well, were routinely denied any opportunity to live in these exclusionary municipalities.
The inhospitable inhabitants of these locales relied on some combination of discrimination, harassment, arson and riots, sometimes escalating to outright lynching to enforce ordinances which mandated a state-sanctioned, lily-white society. These so-called Sundown Towns got their nocturnal nickname from the intimidating signs posted at the city limits which warned, ’N-word, don't Let the Sun Go Down on You [Here].’
Pointing out that a widespread sundown town mentality persists to this day, Loewen argues that it is about time that America owned up to the damaging practice. Otherwise, he concludes, the country has little hope of eradicating the prevailing housing patterns which continue to keep the majority of blacks segregated and suffering in the squalor of our impoverished inner-cities.