World-tilting invisible history

Dear President Biden,

I think I told you a few months ago that I was reading James Loewen’s book Lies My Teacher Told Me, a world-tilting treatise on how American history is so thoroughly white- (and male-) washed as to wholly misrepresent how our country came into existence and the forces that shaped and continue to shape it (a synopsis is linked here). Well, now I’m reading the 2018 version of his book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (the publisher’s overview is here) and I’m finding it at least as world-tilting as Lies.

I’ve borrowed it from the library and am reading it on my Kindle and the little progress indicator says I’m only 16% of the way through when it feels as though I’ve already picked up seventeen thousand tons of heaviness. The idea that I’m less than a fifth of the way through is daunting.

You know what a sundown town is – right? As president you better but since I’m finding that knowledge of this hidden dimension of American racism is hit or miss I’ll briefly tell you so that I can be sure you know what I’m talking about. Sundown towns are villages, towns, cities, suburbs – even entire counties and states – that have or had formal or informal exclusionary policies to keep certain people from living within their bounds. They mostly apply to Black, Chinese, Mexican, and Jewish people (who specifically was/is excluded varies quite a bit by geographic region). Many such towns had signs posted on the main roads in that warned Black people (mostly) that they had better not be within the town limits when the sun went down. Some had sirens that sounded at 6pm to signal when Blacks needed to be gone.

Loewen briefly takes us through our history from the end of slavery through Reconstruction and (so far) into the Nadir of race relations. He uses Census data to illustrate how Black Americans were widely dispersed throughout the country, living in small rural places across the North and West as well as in larger towns and cities during Reconstruction, and then how during the Nadir, when White people’s racism steadily ratcheted up, they were driven out of smaller communities and forced into what essentially became segregated cities/ghettoes.

I could pretty easily stay up in my head explaining this stuff until sundown but that’s not really what feels important right now. Rather, what feels important is to convey the sense of the awful stew of shitty emotions all of this has stirred up. I’ve known about redlining, racist housing covenants, and racist dispersal of GI benefits for a while now and each of those revelations definitely rocked my world, but the reality that in thousands of towns (villages, cities, suburbs, counties – entire states [Oregon]) White citizens banded together to make their spaces White, largely through violence and intimidation. And the fact that I didn’t know all of this this is extremely unsettling – and upsetting.

It’s a “the air we breathe” problem on steroids. It’s so ubiquitous that we can’t see it – even some Black people I’ve checked with don’t know what sundown towns are so it’s not just White people who are (mostly) oblivious.

The other day Laura likened all this new seeing to how hard the windshield wipers have to work when you’re following a big truck through muddy slushy stuff that coats the windshield and how you have to keep the wipers on to have a prayer of seeing clearly. What we didn’t talk about is how harrowing it feels trying to navigate safely under such conditions, how much easier it would be to pull over to the side and wait until things settle down. But of course, who gets to be inside the proverbial car with the choice whether to park it and wait out the storm, or maybe take a detour around it, has everything to do with White privilege, doesn’t it?

And so I persist.

May we all have safe, healthy places to live.
May we all be willing to dig deeper to see just how systemic systemic racism truly is.
May we all (who need to) have the strength to get over ourselves, and stop pretending America isn’t racist to its core.
May we accept that a country predicated on lies, oppressive violence, and exclusion cannot ever be ok (let alone great) unless it undertakes a real truth and reconciliation process.

Tracy Simpson

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