Sundown Towns and Denial

Apropos of my discussion about historical contexts and the feminist movement, I’ve been thinking a lot more lately about history, particularly hidden and denied history. History shapes the way we think and act, even if we aren’t conscious of the ways it shapes us, the power it has to mold us and dictate our beliefs. I don’t have to know the names of the people who came before me to be influenced by them and the same holds true for all of us. We cannot shed or escape our history.

Our reluctance to confront history has real world consequences, especially in the realm of social justice. Because our steadfast refusal to engage with history, to dig a little deeper to find the darker side of the story, is constantly coming up to bite us in the ass. The thing we forget is that while we may vigorously deny history, other people do not. The pervasive attitudes that shape the way we think and act—the many unconscious things I have internalised simply because I am white, for example—they have a profound impact on their victims as well as their perpetrators.

The Sundown Town, for those not in the know, is a concept dating from a period not all that long ago in American history. A number of towns in many regions of the United States posted signage at their entrances making it crystal clear that nonwhite folks were not welcome after dark. Laws were passed. Nonwhite people who were caught in town after dark could be imprisoned if they were lucky and beaten if they weren’t. The evidence is there. All of this information is pretty readily available. Yet, towns with a history of being Sundown Towns often attempt to deny it, to hide it, to shuffle their past under the rug.

The Sundown Town spoke to a lot of attitudes in the United States about race and culture. Nonwhite folks weren’t outright banned, because their labour was needed during the day. The cooks, the housemaids, the janitors were welcome to come during the day to work for the white folks, and then they needed to go back home, quickly quickly, before dark fell.

We may not have literal Sundown Towns in the sense of places with big signs at the entry reminding Mexicans that they aren’t welcome after dark, but we would be foolish to pretend that the Sundown Town is a thing of the past. One of the many legacies of race relations in the United States is a profound class disparity that falls along colour lines. While not officially restricted from pursuing any career they like, nonwhite folks find themselves unofficially relegated to the serving classes.

I thought about this when I was living in Oakland and there was a strike at the University of California, Berkeley, and I got into a conversation with some of the strikers. They were asking for a lift on the freeze on cost of living wage increases, and one of the things that really struck me was how many of the strikers were nonwhite, and commuting from outside Berkeley to get to work. They couldn’t afford to live in Berkeley. They lived in points surrounding. Some were commuting from Sacramento every day. They would have loved nothing more than to live in Berkeley, but the cost of living was so high that it wasn’t feasibly possible.

Welcome in Berkeley by day to mop up after college students and mow the college greens, but they had to go home after dark.

There’s an attitude, I think, that when prejudice is illegal it doesn’t happen. And that when there are no laws to bar people from things, that their lives are a reflection of personal choices. The Berkeley strikers were choosing to work at Berkeley, to commute in from somewhere else. Berkeley wasn’t a Sundown Town. The college is diverse! Berkeley cares.

The Sundown Town is in all our pasts. That’s something we are all culpable for. And we’ve got to admit that it happened and talk about it before we can begin to address that culpability. Before we can talk about how the spirit of the Sundown Town has persisted to the present day. There may be no signs at city limits, no laws, no official policies, but people are barred from full integration in community life just as effectively.

When we deny this part of our past, we do ourselves a great disservice. And we also go a great disservice to the people who are working to deconstruct the legacies left behind by the past. Our continual rejection, to be blunt, of facts, forces people to reinvent the wheel over and over again. We can talk about the situation in Berkeley, about how it clearly illustrates class divides, about how nonwhite folks are more likely to be in the lower classes, we can talk about the current aspects of the broken system that are contributing to it.

Or we can speak the unspeakable, and point out that Berkeley is little better than a Sundown Town. What prior generations accomplished openly with legislation and violence, we, yes, we, accomplish through oppressive social structures and our poisonous inherited attitudes. If we can’t connect the dots there, see the connection between what was past and what was present, is it any wonder that the victims of our oppression aren’t really interested in trying to engage with us?