Now is an appropriate time to recommend a book by this name. The small town of Jena, Louisiana, has become the center of national focus after local authorities charged six Black teenagers with attempted murder for attacking a White teen. Five have been released from jail but one remains. Jena is now overrun by the media and civil rights activists, including Jesse Jackson III.
The book Sundown Towns highlights a time in American history when white towns often prohibited Blacks within town limits after dark. Sometimes these policies were unspoken but well known among area Blacks. At other times, a town advertised its policy with a sign at the city limits. This picture, one of many, is an accurate representation of the cultural values driving the subject of race in America.
When we think of this chapter in American history, we often pass it off as a practice of another era or, if it exists at all, it is restricted to the old eleven Confederate states. We are firmly convinced that such practices no longer exist anywhere in 21st Century America.
We would be wrong on both counts.
Sundown Towns existed in every state including California. Taft, for example, a small town in Kern County not too far from Bakersfield, had a sign on its outskirts in 1930 reading: “Read nigger and run ; if you can’t read, run anyway. Nigger don’t let the sun go down on you in Taft.” (page 344) In the 1930’s, even Oakies were preferable to blacks in Taft. Today, of course, those attitudes have pretty well disappeared. Although some old timers avoided Taft as late as 2001, several black families now live there.
But Taft seems a minor blip on an attitudinal radar screen when we consider that the home of a black war veteran was burned in Redwood City in 1947, and an Atherton real estate agent proposed making the entire “San Mateo Peninsula,” including San Francisco, a Sundown Area. (pages 393-394) In his words, the area was not “a proper place for Negroes, Chinese, and other racial minorities.” Nothing ever came of his proposal, but his attitude was emblematic of attitudes all over the nation, North, South, East, and West. Fortunately, as Lowen points out in a later chapter, those attitudes have largely disappeared but nevertheless vestiges of the good old days linger.
The most relevant chapter in Lowen’s book is Chapter 14, Sundown Towns Today. In his assessment, California has achieved the most progress toward integrating its communities, at least to the extent that discriminatory laws have been eliminated and Sundown Town signs have been removed.
As Lowen demonstrates, however, the current status of the racial divide nationwide may not be as publicly ugly as in past eras, but it is alive and well in other forms. The modern phenomenon of the gated community is a case in point. An adaptation of a practice that reportedly began in Brazil, the gated community in America flourished. By 1997, over 3,000,000 American households lived “behind walls.” (page 391) The number is undoubtedly greater today as developers have tapped a new and prosperous segment of our society—retired individuals. In one recent commercial, the pitchman was Erik Estrada of ChiPs fame, who was the voice-over and on-camera talent for a development in Hot Springs Village, Arkansas, once a pristine forest but now a lacework of roads, man-made lakes, golf courses, condos, luxury homes, shopping facilities, and medical clinics. The population of Hot Springs Village is 8,397; 97% White non-Hispanic; 1% Hispanic; 0.9% Black; 0.5% other. This town is a classic example of Lowen’s 21st Century Sundown Town.
As for Jena, Louisiana, the town is a microcosm of a broader national trend as well. Today, if asked, most Whites deny the existence of racism; most Blacks affirm it. Thus, the question “Does racism exist” seems irrelevant. A more probing analysis should concentrate on the divide among the races in answering the original question. Why are their views so divergent?
The history of racial relations in America is there for all to see. The history of this century remains to be written. One hopes that it will be a history of positive solutions rather than a rehash of old arguments.