Joe Hendren

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Sundown towns: Just how deliberate was institutional racism in the US?

On the subject of the history of race relations in the US, The Washington Post carries an interesting review of a new book called 'Sundown Towns' by James W. Loewen. Loewen argues that thousands of American towns kept themselves 'whites only' through deliberate policies between 1890 and 1960, aiming to drive out any black population and discourage any potential citizens of the "wrong" colour. These measures included "legal" ordinances banning the hiring of blacks or renting/selling them homes, informal "visits" warning visiting African Americans that "they must not remain in the town".

Such towns often posted signs at their city limits, carrying warnings such as "Nigger, Don't Let The Sun Set On YOU in Hawthorne", as one California town did in the 1930s.

Around 50 towns used mob violence, with many more relying on the threat of violence Loewen reports.

I think this helps to demonstrate how racial segregation in the US was not just 'the way things always had been', but a deliberate policy to legalise outright racism in the first half of the twentieth century. If this is so, perhaps we should not be as hesitant to use words like 'apartheid' to describe the situation existing in the US at that time.

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At 1:57 AM, Blogger WebmasterMama said...

This is 100% totally true. The town I grew up in - it was common knowledge that blacks were not allowed in the town after dark. It continued throughout the 80's and quite possibly the 90's too. It sickens me to think it could still be happening today.

At 1:13 PM, Blogger stephen said...

I have friends in Texas who maintain this is still happening now. I can't say it would surprise me.

At 5:34 PM, Blogger Joe Hendren said...

thanks webmastermama and stephen,

I have heard similar things too. On my first big trip overseas I met an African American 'Reverend' from California in a Frankfurt hostel. He said he wasn't 'religious' but was interested in spirituality. This idea intrigued me.

He soon impressed me as a very thoughtful guy, and a great person to see the sights of Frankfurt with.

He told me even in the more 'liberal' states like California a great deal of 'implicit' racism still existed. This turned into an interesting discussion how blacks in prominent positions (such as Opera or Michael Jordan) were promoted by the establishment as demonstrating greater equity existed, when it was far from the reality for most African Americans (This is not to lessen Opera or MJ achievements, but a comment on 'the powers that be')

I would be interested in your thoughts about whether you think anti-discrimination laws in the US need to be beefed up further, or is the problem more with the current laws not being enforced well enough? It may be a mixture of both.

Unfortuntely a degree of racism exists in every country, as Don Brash proved in the last NZ election campaign.

At 1:56 PM, Blogger t selwyn said...

Malcolm X's autobiography is an eye-opener on this score. His family were run out of Omaha when he was a kid and went up North to Lansing, Michigan where the KKK was called the Black Legion. His father was killed by the Legion and the insurance company refused to pay out claiming it was a suicide despite all the evidence. There was an effective curfew on Blacks in the white part of town apart from all the other segregationist methods that existed in the supposedly non-segregationist North. But he cites some examples of blacks and whites hooking up surrepticiously to aviod the police or social sanctions that they would incur if they were caught fraternising. When he moved to Boston there was all manner of segregation there too.

Today I understand in many parts of the US petty discrimination occurs: housing, taxis, police persecution etc. - just like here only a lot worse.

At 1:08 AM, Anonymous Clarividente said...

I just finished Loewen's book and like his earlier "Lies my Teacher Told Me" it is excellently and carefully researched. Also, is great to read a sociologist that can actually write well.

Two brief comments, every white person should read the section on the consequences of segrgation for whites, unless people find self interest in this issue, nothing will happen.

Secondly, our denial as a nation, look at poeple saying that Katrina and Rita were NOT about race but class as if these two can e separated in the USA.

We deny because it challenges everything we have ever learned about ourselves as a country. A collective and massive example of cognitive dissonance.


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