City Limits: Investigating The History And Survival Of The All-White American Municipality
James W. Loewen
James Loewen’s new book, Sundown Towns, is a 563-page study on the importance of being white—a testament to the ever-pollinating bloom of white supremacy. Exclusive fortresses of whiteness in America’s rapidly blackening landscape, sundown towns such as Mena, Ark., advertised for residents in the mid-1920s with fliers reading cool summers, mild winters, pretty homes, no mosquitos, no blizzards, no drought, no negroes. These sought-after locales were named “sundown towns” because of the numerous signs displayed in such areas as recently as the 1990s reading nigger, don’t let the sun go down on you here. Loewen corroborates the existence of thousands of these sundown towns across the United States—he found 472 sundown towns in Illinois alone. He also finds white people of all classes—from the very poor to the very rich—inhabiting these towns.
“The absence of black residents is no accident” Loewen writes, the ethnic cleansing occurring through rioting, violence, threats, and “a panoply of other means.” Not only have federal, state, and local governments subsidized sundown towns, but so have most banks and real-estate companies. Free from the supposition of anachronism often implicit in such excavations, thankfully, Loewen’s study traces the history of the terrorist sundown town from its inception in the 1890s to its survival and vibrancy today in municipalities such as Darien, Conn., Appleton,Wis., Highland Park, Texas, La Jolla, Calif., Anna, Ill., Garrett County, Md., Scottsdale, Ariz., Warren, Mich., and Cedar Key, Fla., among many others. “Sundown towns are still being created,” Loewen writes. And he presents a highly detailed, groundbreaking confirmation of the widespread tradition of racial discrimination.
In contrast to his enthusiastic and rigorous firsthand documentation—through hundreds of interviews with residents or victims of these exclusionary all-white towns—Loewen approaches the corresponding study of all-black towns of the same era with little earnestness or interest. While he admits the all-black towns—such as Nicodemus, Kan., Mound Bayou, Miss., and Boley, Okla.—were “founded at precisely the same time” as the all-white towns (1890-1940), and that these towns often had symbiotic, as well as antagonistic or “competitive,” relationships with sundown towns, he excludes the all-black towns from serious and thorough inquiry. Worse, he doesn’t acknowledge that he isn’t going to give them a detailed look. He acts as if a measly five pages of sweeping assumptions—with no field research and little factual backing—warrants his dismissing the black towns as no real solution to American racism.
In the weakest bit of scholarship in the whole book, Loewen holds out a single example as proof of this “no real solution”: neighboring white people’s violent elimination of the thriving black town of Boley, Okla., which in 1908 had “two banks, two cotton gins, a newspaper, a hotel, and a college.” Aside from failing to acknowledge the continued existence of all-black towns such as Eatonville, Fla.—to do so would discredit his existence-equals-real solution claim—he downplays Boley’s benefits to black people while it existed and doesn’t credit the stimulating role towns such as Boley had in equalizing race relations.
Nor does Loewen adequately quantify the functions of any black towns other than Boley, though he quantifies numerous all-white towns. Additionally, he casually disparages black-power movements of the day, such as those of Marcus Garvey, making the false assumption that the black-pride movements were “ineffective” because they “ended in disarray.” In fact, just like the all-white sundown towns Loewen labors and marvels over in page after page, black-nationalist movements are very much alive and well today.
Actually, Loewen’s argument that all-black towns were “no real solution” to white racism and terrorism is beside the point. It’s like saying Native American settlements were “no real solution” to Europeans’ westward expansion and the ensuing genocide. The black towns weren’t designed to be a “solution” to white terror, but a place for black people to live as a community with a reduced threat of violence, which by and large was achieved. He glosses over the fact that these towns provided the best refuge from the “racist storm” available at the time, where African-Americans “ran their own post offices, hiring African Americans,” and “ran their own precincts, which let African-Americans vote, even as the outside society was shutting blacks out of politics.” Loewen instead chooses to emphasize that the black towns “only offered partial relief”—as if “partial relief” isn’t better than being homeless and terrorized, or as if black people somehow are responsible for providing their own foolproof relief from racism.
In his off-the-cuff scrutiny of black towns, Loewen doesn’t hold white people accountable for the constant overt and covert attacks on these black towns, but in classic blame-the-victim rhetoric, implies that many black towns’ destruction were a result of black people’s inability to come up with more acceptable responses to white bigotry.
Loewen thinks it’s important to mention that “black towns were not the only response to increasing white hostility,” but he doesn’t elaborate on any other responses, only mentioning in passing Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois’ philosophies. In the same sentence he incredulously concludes that the all-black towns these efforts were “no good answer”—once again implying that black people needed to somehow improve their problem-solving skills, failing to acknowledge that the real solution lies with white people changing their racist ideas and violent attacks.
He suggests that because black people still faced white resistance as they forged their own towns and sought economic advancement that this continued terrorism indicated that these efforts held no merit and “didn’t work.” According to Loewen, the formation of black towns can’t be the answer, nor are the ideas of Washington, Du Bois, or even Garvey. He concludes in the final section of his rejection of black towns: “Despair seemed to be the only answer to the hatred. Still relevant were the old slave spirituals such as ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.’” Amazingly, Loewen imagines “poor darkies” sitting around some campfire, homeless and downtrodden, singing old slave spirituals as more “relevant” and a better “answer” to white people’s attacks than black people’s attempts at self-reliance.
Loewen’s arbitrary attitude that black economic independence or nationalism is “not a solution,” and that somehow it’s the black man’s burden to come up with a better “answer” to his own persecution, persists throughout the book and culminates in the final chapter, titled “The Remedy,” a pithy, 1960s-throwback, sentimental address to an obviously all-white readership. His charge, roughly paraphrased: White people need to let the poor, disadvantaged black people attend their superior schools and live in their superior neighborhoods and become a part of their superior Norman Rockwell world, with the caveat that only a few need to be let in and that black people do most of the work, make most of the sacrifices, devising better tactics, such as the treadmill of civil-rights litigation to achieve this “integration.” He writes:
This book hopes to spur action to end sundown towns, suburbs and neighborhoods, and some of that action can be taken only by African Americans. . . . a black family backed by an alert civil rights attorney . . . can now buy a home in most of America’s persisting sundown towns. Some towns would still meet them with freeze-out or violence, but . . . African Americans have braved appalling conditions . . . usually persevering in the long run and winning the right to live in the former sundown town in peace.
The very idea that black people have to suffer the threat of injury to win the “right to live” next to white people underscores the philosophy of white supremacy. And though Loewen also challenges white people living in sundown towns to move out, he does not require that they endure the same isolation, scrutiny, unfamiliar surroundings, and possible violence as black people, saying, “whites do not have to be so bold as to move to predominantly black neighborhoods,” insisting that it’s perfectly fine for white people to emigrate to a “majority-white suburb, struggling to stay interracial . . . thus deterring white flight”—“interracial” here being a population as little as 2 percent black. In doing so, he does not challenge the idea of whiteness being the equivalence of exclusivity in American real estate. On the contrary, black burden and white privilege remains the premise on which Loewen’s “integration” is built.
Perhaps, ultimately, Loewen is right: We must come up with a better solution, a cure—not a remedy—to white supremacy, because he has not. Clearly, most of the changes brought about by the civil rights-era concept of “integration” have been largely cosmetic. His study proves that the civil-rights approach has not shaken the underlying foundation of racism in this country but simply masked it better. And Loewen’s extremely outdated “remedy” of essentially more of the same sort of bogus and ineffectual “integration” (tokenism) makes this meticulous archiving of white exclusionism, exploitation, and terrorism in the sundown towns he studies more of an exercise in nostalgic wonder and gawking fascination than a call for radical change.