Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Evil at the Root

Sundown Towns:A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, by James W. Loewen, is a really tough read.

I find myself thinking about "Young Goodman Brown," a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Young Goodman Brown believes his community good and pious until one night he wanders off into the woods and sees everyone he knows carrying on in flagrant sin and debauchery.

The next morning, everything has returned to normal, but Brown cannot unsee what he has seen, nor forget what he now knows to be true.


My story as an American white person is one of privilege.

Growing up, and for the rest of my life too, my family has lived wherever we wanted. When my family wanted to send me to a better public school, we took an apartment in a more affluent town. We had no difficulty finding someone to rent to us. We moved in and made ourselves at home. No one made us feel like we didn't belong.

I do not worry about what would happen if I am pulled over by the police.  I've been pulled over a few times over several decades of driving.  Half the time, they let me go with just a warning.

Recently, (it has happened twice), I walked into a Barnes & Noble and set off the door alarms.
"It's me!" I said, when the staff looked around to see who had set them off. "It's something in my purse."
Unalarmed by my confession, the staff scrambled to silence the doors.
"It has happened before," I told them, beginning to feel inconvenienced.
No one asked to see inside my bag.

I go to McDonalds and use the Women's Room. Sometimes, I buy food. Sometimes, I don't.  It doesn't strike me as a moral dilemma.

My privileges are too numerous to list.


After the Civil War, African-Americans dispersed throughout the country from the South, ready to make a fresh start. At first, they were welcomed.

Inspired by the moral victory of the Civil War and the spirit of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, most white people from Union states brimmed with anti-racist conviction.

By1890, however, for various reasons--some historical, others reptilian--white people began a steady retreat from that moral high ground whereupon all men are created equal and entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The treatment of Chinese immigrants in the 1870s and 1880s foreshadowed the treatment of African-Americans.  Chinese laborers, terrorized by ordinary white people assuming the actions of murderers and arsonists, fled from towns all over the American West and took refuge in the big cities, in what we quaintly refer to as chinatowns.

Following the American-Spanish War (1898), President McKinley proclaimed Filipinos and Guamanians to be unfit to govern themselves, brushing aside American ideals of equality among men, government by the people for the people, (blah, blah, blah).

The U.S. installed military bases in the Phillipines and on Guam, and proceeded to bomb the crap out of Guam for many decades (target practice).

Between 1890 and 1940, what Loewen refers to as "the Nadir of racism" in the United States, good pious folk began driving African-American people out of their homes with acts of domestic terrorism similar to what was done to Chinese immigrants in the West.

To make 15, 35, 50 or even more families flee their homes overnight takes more than one or two burning crosses on a lawn.

African-American families left town in the middle of the night, taking only what they could carry, often from homes engulfed in flames.  Along the way, they passed the sight of their neighbors' distorted bodies hanging from trees, the victims of public lynchings at the hands of a fulminating mob.

From California to Minnesota to New Hampshire (where the motto is "Live Free or Die"), African-Americans were driven out of. or prevented from residing in, sundown communities all over the country (except in the South).

Signs posted at town or city borders threatened the lives of African-American in the rudest terms, should they be found on the premises after sunset.

No one would hire them.  No one would rent to them.  No one would finance a mortgage.

The number of racially exclusive "sundown" villages, towns, cities, and counties throughout the Northeast, Midwest, and Western states is shocking.

For example, Loewen cites compelling evidence (based on census figures, records, and interviews) that as many as 75% of the incorporated towns in Illinois exercised a policy of exclusiveness that extended into the early 1970s, and sometimes much later--into the 80s, 90s, or even as late as the early 2000's.

(Loewen points out that even in the worst of times, one or two African-American people or families  who had close ties to powerful white families were often protected, their continued presence tolerated in otherwise racially exclusive communities.)

White people growing up in all-white towns may never see or know a person of color until they go to a city.  They may grow up believing that the fact that there are no African-American families (or perhaps just one family) in the town where they grew up is just coincidence--just the way it is and always has been. (No misdeeds or racist acts should be ascribed to it.)

But that is simply not true.  The total or near-total absence of people of color in rural and suburban areas throughout the northern and western states is no accident.  It was (and, in some places, is still) the direct result of racist attitudes, policies, and actions by white people.

In some places, those actions were sudden, violent, and terrifying. In other places, they took the form of a warning and explicit or implied threat. More discretely, white landlords would refuse to rent to African-Americans, white bankers would not approve home mortgages, white employers would not hire African-Americans, etc.,.

The result of these actions was that African-Americans were excluded from communities throughout  the country, and their options were narrowly drawn.

Like the Chinese-Americans who found relative safety in insular "chinatown" streets of the inner cities,  African-Americans found relative safety among other African-Americans in the insular and underserved neighborhoods of cities like Chicago, New York, Milwaukee, and Detroit--to name a few.

So, if you're white, try re-imagining your own history from the point of view of an African-American.

Imagine the Civil War ending, and your family travels north to make a fresh start, naturally gravitating toward the small rural towns that seem familiar, based on your life experience of living and working on farms and in small rural towns in the South.

For a while, you feel welcome.  Other African-Americans arrive, and now there are 25, and soon 50 other African-American families.  You have a job, and a home. A nice life.

And then your friend and a white woman like each other, romantically.  You advise your friend, this might be dangerous, but he doesn't listen.  He really likes the girl.  When the girl's father sees the couple embracing, he accuses your friend of rape.

Suddenly, the mood and tone of white folks fundamentally changes.  One night, a mob of about a hundred people under cloak of darkness or white sheets viciously beat, violate, and lynch your friend.  They leave him mutilated and hanging from a tree.

And then they come looking for you.

They set fire to your house, and to the houses of every other African-American family in town. Shots ring out. You hear screaming.  All you can think about is getting your family as far away as possible, as fast as you can.


Now, if you're white, imagine it's 1938, you're African-American, and you want to drive from Los Angeles to Detroit to visit your brother's family, whom you haven't seen in three years.  You make sure to pack:

The Negro Motorist Green Book

In the segregated US of the mid-twentieth century, African-American travelers could have a hard time finding towns where they were legally allowed to stay at night and hotels, restaurants, and service stations willing to serve them. In 1936, Victor Hugo Green published the first annual volume of The Negro Motorist Green-Book, later renamed The Negro Travelers' Green Book. 
[Description of this title from the book's product page Amazon]


Imagine you're a young African-American man in 2018, and you walk into a Barnes & Noble in Madison, Wisconsin, and set off the door alarms.  
The all-white staff looks at you with expressions of mounting concern.  
You smile, and say, "I think it's something in my backpack." 
Someone at Customer Service dials the police.
"This has happened to me before," you explain, but this fails to diffuse the tension.  
You wonder what it is in your backpack that set off the alarm. You swing your backpack around to the front and open it.
That's when the police show up.  


I was at a rally in Madison not long ago, protesting Trump's immigration policy. One of the speakers, an African-American student at UW,  advised the mostly white crowd to take responsibility for educating other white people about racism.

I thought that what he was asking seemed like an oversimplification. White people are not that easy to educate.

Since Trump was elected, white people were having a great deal of difficulty talking to each other about politics.  In the days and weeks following the unexpected election results, family relationships between Dems and Republicans had become strained beyond their tensile strength.

Thanksgiving, for many, was a miserable business.  I know people who skipped the holidays entirely in 2016 because the thought of sitting at the same table with anyone who was glad about Trump being elected was beyond endurance.

Fortunately, I didn't have any Republicans in my immediate family, and even my Republican uncle on the West Coast was quick to let me know that he had not voted for Trump (thank God).

But even so, the thought of actively engaging white Republicans in an elucidating conversation about racism?  I just didn't have the stomach or the patience for it.  I'd rather pour hot wax in my ears.

But that was before.  Before I went to Appleton (see previous post).  Before I knew anything about sundown towns and the ugly history of how lily-white towns got to be so lily white.  And how it wasn't because African-Americans never had any interest in living anywhere except the inner cities.

And that, my friends, is something I feel I have a responsibility to tell.  This is what we, as white people, need to understand: the active and deliberate evil that lies at the root of white privilege.

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