I'm returning at last to the pile of notes from my week at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Portland at the end of June (so much to blog, so little time!). This post is the follow-on an earlier post on James Loewen, the author of Sundown Towns, who followed his first lecture with a workshop on how people from all-white neighborhoods can research the history of their own towns, and discover for themselves when and how sundowning happened.
Loewen's an eager evangelist for people who are interested in doing this research, since he believes that America will never fulfill its promise as a diverse and equal society until it starts coming to terms with its own past. And since this past is evident in the faces of every all-white community in America -- almost every one of which, Loewen asserts, is white by conscious individual and governmental choices that are now very sordid bits of long-forgotten history -- bringing these facts to light is a crucial part of the reconciliation process.
So, how do we get started? Between his two talks, Loewen offered some general thoughts on the ways racism still presents itself throughout our society, usually in ways so ingrained and subtle we hardly even see it. That's this post. After that, he provided specific research suggestions for people wanting to pursue the history of their own towns further. That'll be the next one.
Fresh Thinking On Discrimination
Loewen was emphatic that the first thing we need to do is get over the sense of paralysis so many of us feel. "We can't wait until we get ourselves right on race before we go do things. If we do, we'll never do anything." Loewen draws a clear distinction between prejudice, which is an attitude; and discrimination, which is prejudiced expressed in actions. We may not be able to eliminate our own internal prejudices; but there's a lot we can do to put an end to discriminatory actions -- once we're sensitized to them.
For example, Loewen challenged his audience to consider why they choose the neighborhoods they do. "If you live in an all-white neighborhood, you're part of the sundown problem," he said. If we want to live in a diverse, well-integrated society, that intention needs to be part of our housing choices.
For those selling a house in an all-white neighborhood, Loewen cautions that real estate and rental agents, employers, and others involved in the process of choosing homes have successfully perpetuated sundown neighborhoods by "steering" -- the practice of aiming whites to the "right" neighborhoods, and people of color to "other" neighborhoods. This process is also at work in the ways they market houses -- the media their ads appear in, for example. To change this, we need to ask our seller's agents pointed questions about how they intend to market our homes, to whom, and through what media. We need to make it explicitly clear that we're interested in attracting buyers from non-white groups. And those of us who are buying need to make it equally clear that we'd prefer to buy in a well-integrated neighborhood.
He also encouraged non-white members of the audience to consider buying houses in all-white neighborhoods, reminding us that "it only takes one black family to take a town off the list of sundown towns." And all of us, he said, should openly call into question the prestige that our culture still assigns to all-white neighborhoods. "Stigmatize them. They don't deserve that prestige. 'Greendale. Isn't that an all-white neighborhood? Why on earth would you want to live there?'" he laughed, wrinkling up his nose in distaste.
Next, Loewen held aloft a copy of the SkyMall catalog -- that ubiquitous rag stuffed in every pretzel-crumbed airline seatback pocket in the country. "This may be the most important catalog in the US today," he thundered with the dark zeal of an Old Testament patriarch, his white Amish beard adding to the effect.
Loewen told us he'd been collecting and tracking SkyMall catalogs for the past three years, collecting data on the first 100 photos in each issue that featured people's faces. And, excluding company presidents (who often figure in SkyMall ads), Loewen found exactly zero non-white faces in the catalog in all that time. "Just this month, I found the first ad with a colored face -- an African-American couple in a picture frame. That same issue also showed a young girl who may have been either Asian or Latina. But this is the first time I've seen this in three years...I think this is an outrage."
"What this says is that it's OK to do this," he continued, pointing out that most white people who look at SkyMall will utterly fail to notice that they're in an all-white media zone. Loewen readily grants that the publisher probably doesn't have racist motivations -- but, even so, it's producing racist results. This, he says, is the kind of thing we can productively be bugging airlines and catalog publishers about -- though he cautioned us not to expect results. In response to his complaint to US Airways, one of the airlines that carries SkyMall, he got a letter explaining that "the catalog could not be racist because US Airways has an anti-racist policy." The person writing the letter seemed to assume that "having a policy" automatically makes the entire company a racism-free zone, and thus absolved from any further action.
Taking the Fight Local
Loewen, who lives in Washington, DC, is also mightily annoyed at the name of the city's NFL team -- "The Washington Redskins." "This is a lingering part of a long-standing pattern," he said. "It's flatly indefensible." He pointed out that a handful of newspapers around the country, including the Portland Oregonian, won't refer to the team by that name in their pages. "It's just 'the Washington team.' We can ask our own local papers to adopt this same policy."
Likewise, we need to challenge companies that give economic support to sundown towns by moving operations into them. "Take Greenburg, Indiana," said Loewen. "Honda's building a plant there. You have to wonder: are they doing this because it's a sundown town? Or despite that? We need to be asking them questions like this. What are they doing about it? How does this affect their non-white employees? Will they be hiring non-white workers?" Companies will only start considering this as an important criterion when we start making it clear that we expect them to.
For some reason, Loewen notes, governments at all levels often site new prisons in sundown towns -- a practice that ensures that mostly-minority prison populations will be guarded by mostly-white guards. And, in too many of these cases, "every person on the staff is not just white, but white racist." As Dave has written elsewhere, prisons are already a major breeding ground for racism of all stripes throughout the country; putting them somewhere other than all-white towns and insisting on an integrated CO staff may be one way of making them far less fertile.
Finally, we need to hold the schools accountable for what they teach our kids. "History is the worst-taught subject in US schools," said Loewen (who should know: his previous bestseller was Lies My Teacher Told Me, which cataloged the inaccuracies routinely taught in American history classrooms). "There are more teachers in history classrooms teaching out-of-field than you find in any other subject -- especially in the South and the Midwest. In fact, a striking number of history teachers are sports coaches." The upshot, says Loewen, is that kids don't get the kind of in-depth history education they need to be effective citizens.
To remedy this, he says, "visit your local school and see how history is being taught. Review the books. Talk to the teachers. Find out what the kids are learning about both national and local racial history. What's being slid under the rug? How are our kids going to be smart about racism if their education slides the topic under the rug?" Rather than do this on our own, he says, this is a good project for a service group or a church committee, or simply an interested group of parents or citizens.
The real fun, though, according to Loewen, is getting down into your local history and finding out just how your neighborhood, town, or county came to be all-white in the first place. He gave very detailed directions for how to do this, which will be coming up in the next post.