Hidden racism hurts everyone, not just the people it’s directed towards.
Small Incidents of Hidden Racism in the West
“Hey,” I said with a laugh, “Do you realize you couldn’t have lived here back when the house was built?”
“What?” Pedro answered as he walked around the 1000 SF bungalow we’d just signed a deal on in Reno, NV. “Why not?”
“According to the Codes, Covenants, and Restrictions (CC&Rs), the only non-whites allowed to live in the neighborhood were live-in maids.”
We looked around the tiny two-bedroom, one bathroom house and burst into laughter.
“As if,” I said, catching my breath.
He nodded and we went on with our lives, dreaming of renovations, adding a second bathroom, and settling in with our two young daughters.
But little did I know that CC&R document from the 1940s was no laughing matter.
A few years earlier, we met with a Realtor® to talk about downsizing our house so I could stay home with our babies for a few years. Before Zillow, Realtors® sometimes gave clients a print copy of the listings.
Pedro and I had scoured the book, flipping through pages looking for something smaller, affordable on one income, and closer to Pedro’s work. We’d found several houses in an older section of El Centro, CA, and met with our Realtor® to arrange a viewing.
“Umm,” she cleared her throat. “Why don’t we look at some comparable houses in a different part of town?”
“We like this area because it’s closer to Pedro’s work,” I assured her.
“Have you considered the new development going in just south of the freeway?” she insisted.
“We’ve seen the signs, but the starting price is too high for our budget. We’d really like to see those two houses.”
“I can’t show those to you,” she said.
“It’s a little dark on that side of town.”
“Huh? Aren’t established neighborhoods with big trees a good thing in this hot climate?”
Her eyebrows shot up and she took a deep breath. “I don’t think you’d be comfortable in that neighborhood.” She looked pointedly at our toddler with golden curls and smooth white skin. “Like I said, it’s a little dark over there.”
Still confused, I turned to Pedro and raised my eyebrows in question. He shrugged, just as bewildered.
Finally, the Realtor® took pity on us. “I’m not supposed to say this, but ya’ll are white and wouldn’t feel comfortable in THAT neighborhood. Not to mention, your investment wouldn’t be as good in that part of town.”
Not knowing what to do, we stumbled through the meeting and later decided to rent instead of buy. It seemed illegal to steer people away from houses based on color, after all, it was the 1990s!
The Consequences of Hidden Racism
My younger self laughed off the incident, thinking the Realtor® had our best interests in mind (how kind). After reading Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James Loewen, I realized hidden racism is no laughing matter.
I grew up believing the burden for racism in the United States fell squarely on the South. After all, the South fought to keep their slave economy, institutionalized overt racism post-Civil War, and became the battle ground for equality in the 1960s.
But reading Loewen’s book made me take a second look at my assumptions and beliefs. Why, I wondered, did I never have a Black (or Jewish, Native American, Italian, Hispanic, or Asian) neighbor living next door even though I grew up mostly in the West? We spent four years in the South, but I didn’t have any BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, or Person of Color) neighbors in Nebraska, Oregon, and Washington, either.
In fact, I didn’t attend school with a BIPOC until my senior year in high school. This lack of cultural diversity robbed me of opportunities to form friendships with people who didn’t look just like me.
Sundown Towns helped me understand the dearth of cultural diversity in my childhood. CC&Rs blatantly prevented Jews and BIPOC families from moving into neighborhoods. Banks and federal entities made it impossible for Blacks to obtain mortgages. The U.S. government even built sundown towns for workers near federal projects.
And worst of all, good, Christian whites made Blacks (or other ethnic groups they wanted to ostracize) know they weren’t welcome in town. They use(d) tactics from not selling goods, refusing to provide services, harassing the children, burning crosses on the lawn, sending threatening letters, destruction of property, and murder to keep their communities white.
What IS a Sundown Town?
A sundown town is a town, community, or neighborhood that has an implicit or explicit policy of not allowing Blacks (or Jews, Native Americans, Mexicans, Italians, or other ethnic groups) to remain within its borders after the sun goes down. In other words, a BIPOC person may pass through, work, or conduct business in the town, but they remain within its borders after dark at the peril of their life. Overt sundown towns included signs at the entrances warning Blacks (using a derogatory term) not to let the sun go down on them in that town.
Sundown towns exist in each of the contiguous United States (the website doesn’t have data for Alaska and Hawaii). You can check here to see if you live in town filled with hidden racism.
If you’ve ever wondered why a young Black man can die at the hands of a police officer in Colorado Springs, CO, or a police officer murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN (both towns clearly outside of the South), Sundown Towns will answer your questions.
The legacy of sundown towns lingers in the United States, along with the ways their hidden racism continues.
Five Ways Hidden Racism Hurts Everyone
1. Children growing up in all-white neighborhoods develop an ‘Us vs. Them’ attitude.
This white makes right attitude hinders our ability to play well with others later in life. It allows us to grow up otherizing people who don’t look, and act just like us.
2. Living in all-white neighborhoods stunts academic growth.
Scientists and psychologists have long known the benefit to children who grow up learning a second language. Living in ethnically diverse neighborhoods and attending ethnically diverse schools allows children to cultivate social flexibility. This flexibility helps children understand there is more than one way to solve a problem.
3. Hidden racism sees Blacks (or other minorities) as the problem.
This dangerous groupthink causes moral and social lethargy. The people running the Nazi death camps were ‘good’ Christian men and women who swallowed a (obvious to us in hindsight) lie about how the Jews were the problem.
I grew up thinking I wasn’t racist, but a humiliating incident opened my eyes to my own bigotry. Read Blood in the Water for more on how seeing Blacks as the problem has perpetuated a centuries-long injustice.
4. We teach our children to live in a state of denial.
Hidden racism teaches our children to proclaim they aren’t racist, while allowing them to participate in microaggressions and covert acts of racism. Can we truly say we’re not racist if we have no friends outside of work who don’t look just like us?
If we say (as I did for years), ‘I just don’t have the opportunity to make friends with Blacks,” maybe we live in the wrong place. If our children learn to ignore reality in one area of their lives, what other areas will they also apply this lesson to?
5. We hinder the Gospel and work against Jesus by not examining our hidden racism and taking steps to excise it.
Any time we try to limit the Gospel to our white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant point of view, we deny Christ and his sacrifice. Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys points out the epic failure of whites to spread the love of Jesus to Native Americans.
In addition, our refusal to do the hard work of self-examination drives young people from our churches, congregations, and their Savior. If we fail to recognize our bigotry, young people will toss the baby with the bathwater: Christianity=bigotry=Christians are liars=God must be a lie.Our refusal to do the hard work of self-examination drives young people from our churches. #antiracism #bigot Click To Tweet
Sundown Towns is NOT an Easy Read
I listened to this book as I drove to Alaska, worked for hours painting, caulking, and remodeling, and walked around the neighborhood. Listening took hard work and concentration, since at times the stories seem repetitive (only because so many exist with only names and locations differing).
I prefer listening to non-fiction, and the tome took over 26 hours to listen to. The print book has over 500 pages. One can’t ignore five-hundred pages of incontrovertible evidence, anecdotes, and research.
Next on my non-fiction list? Racism Without Racists.
Did you grow up in a sundown town? Have you ever lived next door to someone from a different race or culture? How did the experience influence the ways you think and feel about people from that culture? Have you read any good books on racism lately? I’d love to add more titles to my TBR list!
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