Housing Discrimination: The (Re)Mixed Family Edition
My family and I are in the process of looking for a new apartment right now. Much like those fantastic house-hunting shows on HGTV, we trek to different neighborhoods each weekend in search of the place that has almost everything on our wish list. Chief among our concerns in trying to find a new community is the demographic make-up of the town or city. The great difficulty we’re having trying to find a place where my daughter and I are not “the only” reminded me of historian James Loewen‘s stunning book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, which reveals the ugly secret about how many towns across the U.S. resorted to a host of discriminatory practices and violence to make sure that their communities remained for whites only:
Beginning in about 1890 and continuing until 1968, white Americans established thousands of towns across the United States for whites only. Many towns drove out their black populations, then posted sundown signs. (Portfolio 7 shows an example.) Other towns passed ordinances barring African Americans after dark or prohibiting them from owning or renting property; still others established such policies by informal means, harassing and even killing those who violated the rule. Some sundown towns similarly kept out Jews, Chinese, Mexicans, Native Americans, or other groups. Independent sundown towns range from tiny hamlets such as De Land, Illinois (population 500), to substantial cities such as Appleton, Wisconsin (57,000 in 1970).4 Sometimes entire counties went sundown, usually when their county seat did. Independent sundown towns were soon joined by “sundown suburbs,” which could be even larger: Levittown, on Long Island, had 82,000 residents in 1970, while Livonia, Michigan, and Parma, Ohio, had more than 100,000. Warren, a suburb of Detroit, had a population of 180,000 including just 28 minority families, most of whom lived on a U.S. Army facility.5 Outside the traditional South—states historically dominated by slavery, where sundown towns are rare—probably a majority of all incorporated places kept out African Americans.
By enacting these “sundown laws” white communities effectively erased any black presence from their towns and while one would think that the South had a monopoly on this widespread practice, most sundown towns could be found in the North. Not only that, the practice of sundown laws is very much a part of recent, 20th century history.
Again according to Loewen:
In 1884, it was “a rare mark of distinction” for a town the size of Waverly to be all-white. A few years later, however, beginning around 1890 and lasting until at least 1968, towns throughout Ohio and most other states began to emulate the racial policy of places like Wyandotte and Waverly. Most independent sundown towns expelled their black residents, or agreed not to admit any, between 1890 and 1940. Sundown suburbs arose still later, between 1900 and 1968. By the middle of the twentieth century, it was no longer rare for towns the size of Waverly to be all-white. It was common, and usually it was on purpose. So sundown towns are not only widespread, but also relatively recent. Except for a handful of places such as Wyandotte and Waverly, most towns did not go sundown during slavery, before the Civil War, or during Reconstruction. On the contrary, blacks moved everywhere in America between 1865 and 1890. African Americans reached every county of Montana. More than 400 lived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. City neighborhoods across the country were fairly integrated, too, even if black inhabitants were often servants or gardeners for their white neighbors. Between 1890 and the 1930s, however, all this changed. By 1930, although its white population had increased by 75%, the Upper Peninsula was home to only 331 African Americans, and 180 of them were inmates of the Marquette State Prison. Eleven Montana counties had no blacks at all. Across the country, city neighborhoods grew more and more segregated. Most astonishing, from California to Minnesota to Long Island to Florida, whites the importance of sundown towns 9 mounted little race riots against African Americans, expelling entire black communities or intimidating and keeping out would-be newcomers.
Three other works which echo Loewen’s findings are Rich Benjamins’ book Searching for Whitopia: An ImprobableJourney to the Heart of White America and the PBS documentary Banished: American Ethnic Cleansings and another PBS documentary Race the Power of an Illusion.
According to Leslie Shortlidge of Race Talk, Rich Benjamin’s book Searching for Whitopia: An Improbably Journey to the Heart of White America, touches upon the ugly truth about how “whitopias” were created:
What creates a Whitopia is a thornier question. After all, explains Benjamin, “most Whitopians I encounter don’t purposefully practice racial discrimination and don’t give segregation much thought. Rather, they engage in a form of ‘opportunity mapping.’” This insight, along with many others in the book, provide a clearer picture of the problem, most pointedly addressed midway through Searching for Whitopia, in the chapter “The Geography of Homegeneity; or, What’s Race Got to Do With it?” There’s “racism without racists,” explains Benjamin, as segregation has been “abetted by Uncle Sam, by local governments, by business interests, and by individuals.” Benjamin spent three months living in each of three “Whitopias” in Utah, Idaho, and Georgia. During his Idaho sojourn, he also spent a weekend at a religious retreat near Sandpoint (famous now as the home of ex-LAPD officer Mark Furman) in what Benjamin terms the Aryan Beltway. As the only non-Aryan American at the Christian Identity weekend, he was surprised to be welcomed by the teenagers as soon as he displayed an interest in listening to them. However, he was not at all surprised at being given a warning glare by a woman seated next to him during a pastor’s exhortations to “turn to your right and put your arm around your neighbor in brotherhood.” Some of the attendees at the weekend were eager to explain to the author that they have nothing against black people, but do believe in the separation of the races and the superiorities of whites. “Anglo-Saxon Christians are the apple of His eye,” said one conference attendee, referring to God (Side note: it is not surprising that God’s opinions mirror those of the speaker, if you consider this recent study). (MY NOTE: Benjamin also does time in a Manhattan whitopia. That’s right. New York City.)
In the PBS documentary Banished: American Ethnic Cleansings tells the stories of communities in Arkansas, Missouri, and Georgia that expelled their black residents.
The PBS documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion reveals the FHA’s complicity in further legitimizing the segregation of American communities which began with sundown laws (start from about minute 3:42):
In this edition of my Multicultural Familia audio journal, I discuss how the long legacy of housing discrimination has touched my family’s search for a new place to call home. Have you and your family been touched by the legacy of housing discrimination in this country? What’s your story as a mixed family trying to find a community to call home?
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