Sundown Towns

SUNDOWN TOWNS – CIDADES DO PÔR-DO-SOL

When living in New York City, I had an interesting conversation with a young African American man in which he passionately explained to me how difficult it was to be black in the U.S. while I looked with puzzled eyes thinking “how difficult could it possibly be to live in the richest country in the world?.” What I realize now is that I had been for so long one of those people who deny the existence of a predatory system against minorities. A system which has consistently disadvantaged certain people, while blaming them for their own defeat. One instantly ties that to Jim Crow Laws, which justified government-sanctioned racial oppression and segregation in the South of the United States from the 1800s until the 1960s such as segregation of public schools, places and transportation and so on. Racial inequality was also entrenched in one of the most important aspects of everyday life and directly related to planning: where one could live.

When examining the way the cities are formed today, it is clear that specific neighborhoods are formed by particular demographics and social class. Often the general explanation is that members live in such location because they want to be closer to those equal to them, or simply because in a capitalist society they are not able to afford certain locations. But recently I read a book called Sundown Towns by James Loewen, which documents how minorities have organized in latino, chinese or black neighborhoods because they were forcefully excluded from elsewhere. Between the 1890s and the 1930s – only slowing down around 1970 and still present in some places – many white citizens formed segregated suburbs, putting to practice the idea that African Americans (the most disadvantaged among other minorities) were an inferior race. This geographical segregation is made clear in a passage from the book:

“If the founding fathers and their successors thought African Americans were altogether unfit to associate with the white race, then let’s stop associating with them. And let’s do this not by altering our behavior, but by limiting their choices – by excluding them.” (Loewen, 2005; 21)

Suburbs were already considered the solution to bring up a family, to secure social status and to escape the disamenities of the city (industry, pollution, prostitution, etc.), but it also had racist implications: “The single social fact which can destroy the whole image of middle class respectability is to be known to reside in a neighborhood which has Negroes nearby.” (Loewen, 2005; 121) Many whites refused to accept African Americans as social equals and neighbors, so the move to the suburbs in search for the good life, consolidated a mean to avoid “the black problem” by increasing the distance between them, while declaring upward mobility. And that is how Sundown Towns were established: areas where African Americans were excluded and specifically not allowed to enter or stay after dawn. Signs in the entrance of the town often read in the lines of: “Nigga, don’t let the sun go down on you here”. A town could go sundown in different ways: via violent expulsion, a quiet zoning ordinance, or a more subtle freeze-out or buyout, but it made no consistent difference over time. Either way, African Americans lost their homes and jobs, or their chance for homes and jobs. (Loewen, 2005; 114)

Scottsboro, Alabama. 1935.Scottsboro, Alabama. 1935. Source: Loewen, 2005.

A related development to the former sundown towns are the new gated communities, all of whose units are priced within a narrow range, and whose popularity in Brazil is widely famous. “Gated communities provide no amenities, not even streets, that are open to the public. Their walls and fences keep the public away from streets, sidewalks, parks, beaches, …- resources that normally would be shared by all the citizens of a metropolitan area.” (LOEWEN, 2005; 392) The rationale for all this exclusion is allegedly relief from crime, but another reality implies the Sundown desire of ensuring social status and separating from others ‘not worthy’. The Sundown Town movement in the United States has grave implications for the integrations of minorities in modern societies, and culminated with the riots in the 70s and the current protests that have been felt nationwide (Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in NYC, riots in Baltimore).

Indiana Sundown Sign. 1973.

Indiana Sundown Sign. 1973. Source: Loewen, 2005.

Historically, Latin American countries, including Brazil, have looked up to the United States as symbol of development and opportunity. This post is written to remind us how some developments in the housing sphere, protected by the government and culturally ‘acceptable’, can alienate a large percentage of the population who will come back at some point to collect. The establishment of sundown/gated cities/suburbs only moves problems elsewhere and reinforces prejudice. Brazil, as a developing country whose population strives, and is succeeding, to exit the poverty line and become a part of the middle class, must fight the private and cultural inclination to segregate and maintain breed.

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Loewen, J. (2005). Sundown towns: A hidden dimension of American racism. New York: New Press.
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