Apartheid US-Style

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Review of 'Sundown Towns', James W Loewen, The New Press, £17.99

Sundown towns had signs posted at the city limits: 'Niggers, don't let the sun set on you in this town.' The signs have now gone, but extreme residential segregation remains widespread throughout the US. Particularly from the 1890s onwards, increasing racism throughout the country went hand in hand with a US apartheid. This history is shocking in what it reveals of the scale, viciousness and persistence of racism today.

Loewen has travelled widely throughout the US, drawing on local papers and many interviews. While there is often too much detail and repetition to make for easy reading, this is an exposé of a largely unknown and taboo subject. And Loewen is good at tying in the history of the new racism which emerged after the American Civil War (1860-64) with the terrible demographic revealed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In the early 20th century sundown towns existed in states in the North and West, and from coast to coast - the Klu Klux Klan enforced black exclusion in towns in both Maine and Oregon. Residential exclusion was strong in the non-slave states of the Midwest, like Illinois and Ohio. There, an ethos of equality and goodwill had meant black incomers were welcomed immediately after the Civil War. Over time the post-war euphoria faded. During the depression of 1890 whites came to view their black neighbours as economic competitors. Then whites rioted, often after a trumped-up incident of theft or rape. Over a single night of terror and arson they would drive the entire black population out of the community. And like an epidemic, the violence spread from town to town. Toni Morrison's powerful novel Paradise begins with such a story.

There were other scenarios. Democratic and Republican party politics at both local and national levels figured in the creation of some sundown towns. Others appeared after industrialists and mine owners enticed poor black workers to leave the South and come North to break the unions. Loewen argues, however, that the racism of the organised unions in the American Federation of Labour, which went all-white in 1894, preceded the black strikebreaking.

Radical residential segregation was actually less salient in the Deep South. There black agricultural labour continued to be economically important, and dictated that whites and blacks lived close together. White southerners tolerated this because their racism was already strongly sexualised to sustain the racial divide. The white horror of miscegenation - of racial mixing - and particularly any sexual contact between white women and black men - was well in place before the end of slavery. After the Civil War racism was enforced by outright KKK terror.

The racism of the small rural sundown communities was explicit and often violent. Some larger towns, and indeed whole small cities, remained mixed because, although whites tried, the black population was just too big to be driven out. But ultimately urbanism was no protection against residential apartheid. Over the 20th century blacks in larger towns found themselves increasingly forced to live on the wrong side of the tracks. In cities they were ghettoised when whites fled to the suburbs and prevented blacks from following.

The definition of white supremacy was always based on deep fear and hostility to African Americans, but it otherwise mutated over time. Loewen argues persuasively that a key dynamic was the merging of ethnic Europeans into 'whites'. In the 1870s the Irish were not 'white', but by the early 1900s 'whites' included the Irish, Poles and other European migrants. Conversely, in the 19th century 'non-white' Native Americans and Chinese immigrants faced more or less ugly forms of residential exclusion, as did the Jews and Mexicans in the 20th century.

James Loewen's earlier book Lies My Teacher Told Me is a must-read for anyone interested in dominant versions of US history and politics. Sundown Towns adds another piece to this picture. It is an important book about US racism.