Thursday, October 18, 2007

Racism In The USA

You can hear a lot about racism in the news and when it's in the South, the news person usually has an attitude of, "Well, the south is known to be racist." If it's in the north or west, everyone acts like it's a shock.

I have lived all over the country while working as a consultant. The worst racism I ever saw was in New Haven Connecticut. Of course, not everyone was a racist, anymore than everyone in the south is a racist. I did see some very ugly stuff though.

The thing that amazed me was how secret and sneaky it was. In New Orleans, there was segregation. White lakefront and black lakefront, for example. I didn't even realize that was weird until I was in my 20s. I thought that was just the standard. White lakefront wasn't any better or any worse than black lakefront, it was just segregated by the Bayou St John bridge. That bridge was out of order all through my teens.

Anyway, my point is that the white people who didn't like black people were pretty blatant and outspoken about it. The black people who didn't like white people were just as outspoken. You knew where you stood.

In New Haven, it was sneaky. I was in an elevator with a guy I worked with. A black guy was in the elevator with us. When the black guy got off, my co-worker went off on a racist tirade that was embarrassing to watch. And the black guy hadn't even said anything on the ride. I saw a lot of that.

Now, on to my point. I don't really think much about racism. I try to avoid racists where I can. Color, religion, culture, etc just don't drive my reactions. But hearing constantly about how the South was so much more racist than anywhere else has colored my views.

I had convinced myself that New Haven was an abberation and that the south really was that much worse. Turns out, that's not true. At least not in the last and past behavior is the best indicator of future performance, as they say.

That's why I was interested when I ran across this post on Orcinux, Truth & Reconciliation, Part II: James Loewen on Sundown Towns. I had never heard of a sundown town and that's because it is a uniquely northern and western phenomona.

If you think the town you grew up in didn't have a race problem because either a) it wasn't in the South, or b) it was all white, Loewen -- the author of "Sundown Towns" and an active Unitarian himself -- has news for you.

"When I started researching this subject, I expected to find three types of sundown towns," Loewen recalled. "I expected to find small towns that were all-white because they'd expelled their black populations; suburbs that were all-white because they excluded blacks (and usually Asians and Jews, as well) from the very beginning; and then a third class of places that were all-white simply because African-Americans never got around to coming there.

Sundown Towns are, apparently, towns that did not allow blacks on the street after sundown. According to the author, this was a widespread practice and would make living in a sundown town difficult if you weren't white:
The term "sundown town" refers to the signs that some of these towns put at their city limits, which typically said things like "Whites Only After Dark." (Some of them were far less polite.) However, most sundown towns didn't bother with overt signage: my own hometown of Bishop, CA never actually put up signs; but the police and certain other citizens made it their business to confront black visitors and advise them of the town's policies regarding their presence overnight. Innkeepers refused to rent them lodging as late at the 1980s. (And if you think sundowning was just out in the sticks, note that this was happening just four hours up the highway from LA.)

The really ugly thing is that these towns did not start off as being white only. After blacks were freed slavery and moved into the towns, the townspeople raised barriers to non-whites living and working there. Not really banning them, more of a back-stabbing hidden thing. And remember, this was not the south.
There are regional wrinkles to the pattern. "I expected to find maybe 10 sundown towns in Illinois, and maybe 50 across the US," said Loewen. Instead, he's found over 500 in Illinois alone -- and estimates that there may well be over 10,000 across the US. The movement was apparently strongest in Illinios, Indiana, and Ohio; and weakest in the South. He's only found six sundown towns in Mississippi. "Sundown towns are rare in the south, particularly the 'traditional south,' he notes.

The author mentions the movie Gentlemen's Agreement about a town, in Connecticut no less, that created a covenant to keep blacks and jews out of town.

This is a bizarre issue that I have never heard of. I guess my southern upbringing didn't prepare me for hiding how I feel. Since I'm not black, I can't really say which would bother me more, knowing that someone hated me for such a stupid reason, or thinking they didn't hate me for that reason when they really do. I think I would prefer to be aware of the hate, but that's just me.

Truth & Reconciliation, Part II: James Loewen on Sundown Towns is a really interesting article. Give it read. There is a bit more info and some links on the wikipedia entry for Sundown Town.

I'm sure we would all like to be rid of racism all together but if we had to have one form of it, blatant or hidden, which would you choose?

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