Premature Evaluation: Sundown Towns

An important story, very badly told.

Before and, more crucially, immediately after the American Civil War, African-Americans were widely dispersed throughout the country. By the 1940s, however, blacks living outside the South were concentrated in particular areas of the largest cities. In Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism James Loewen asks how that happened, and the answer is that white Americans drove them out. The book’s title comes from signs that were posted outside of many — just how many is one of the key preoccupations of the book — cities and towns that read (roughly), “Nigger don’t let the sun go down on you in Town-Name.”

Loewen’s research suggests that the vast majority of towns, counties, suburbs and cities that were all white, or nearly all-white, were that way by design, and were kept that way by a combination of restriction and violence. In the first state that he examined in detail, Illinois, Loewen found that more than 95 per cent of the lily-white towns were sundown towns. In neighboring Indiana, the rate was also above 90 per cent.

The repercussions of this hidden history shape the American culture and landscape to this day. And while obviously much has changed, towns that were sundown by policy persisted at least until the 1980s, and some probably remain that way even today. It’s an important story.

Unfortunately, as a narrator, Loewen is well-nigh insufferable. There is too much signposting, too much of him telling you what an idiot everyone else is for not knowing what he knows, too much condescension toward the reader. (An online example.) It doesn’t look like there’s a monograph that the book is based on, which is a pity, because Sundown Towns is a particularly bad sort of popularization. I may slog on towards the end, in hopes that the details make it worth enduring Loewen’s presence. If not, I’ll stick with the take-away: an all-white town in America is almost certainly not that way by coincidence, but rather the end result of state and private power to keep black Americans out.

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