Book: Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism
Author: James W. Loewen
An interesting dimension of racism, and American racism in particular, is that when whites are confronted with it, their reaction is often to blame the victims of its injustice for creating racism in the first place. To them, blacks create the racism merely by protesting or highlighting that racism. I have found this to be particularly true with reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement and the counterprotests against the recent ugly resurgence of blatant white supremacy. In fact, I recently heard one conservative activist, Sandy Rios, claim that celebrities raising money for hurricane victims are “stoking the fires of racism.” Perhaps it is racism provoking the fires of racism? Racists have become emboldened by a president whose racism is well-documented and whose dog-whistles provide ample cover for him to retreat from accusations of support for white supremacy.
While I was reading this book, Trump launched into one of his rambling monologues, this time in front of the Boy Scouts of America, and talked at length and with great admiration about William Levitt, the founder of Levittown (including the infamous “he had a very interesting life. I won’t go any more than that . . . Should I tell you?” lines). It was interesting for me to read about Levittown’s segregation while at the same time hearing Trump express admiration for the man who forbade the resale of properties to blacks and Jews. Trump’s family also famously refused to sell to blacks, something which the man has never expressed regret or shame for. In short, Trump is one manifestation of the de facto segregation that Loewen documents in this book.
While I did learn a great deal from this book, the most interesting thing that I learned was that Sundown Towns were far more common in the north than in the south. That shook up and rearranged a lot of what I thought I knew about this topic. I was fascinated by this book, and its importance cannot be minimized. The links between the nadir, lynching, segregated housing policies, and racism should not be denied. The continued impact these events have had on black/white relations should not be ignored.
The narrative that is told by many whites to justify or ignore casual racism is one that tells a story of lazy entitled blacks who lack the drive or knowledge to get themselves out of poverty. This is why they are often heard commenting about how long ago slavery was, implying or stating the need for blacks to “get over it.” Reading a book like this could do a great deal to upend that narrative and allow an open-minded reader to see that black Americans are doing amazingly well despite the barriers they have faced and continue to face.
Clearly, and Loewen admits this, more research needs to be dedicated to this area of history. It is a challenging thing to research, given that most towns tend to bury such history and written documentation is scarcer than is ideal. However, honestly and bravely exploring this history could do a lot to move forward in healing the wounds that American racism continues to inflict on that country.