Southern Sundown Neighborhoods

I was thinking about sundown towns lately. They are rare in the Deep South. The reason being that poor blacks in the past lived near the wealthy people they worked for. That is still the case today.

Instead of sundown towns, the Deep South has sundown neighborhoods. A poor all black neighborhood will be next to a wealthy all white neighborhood.

I remember one clear example of this in Columbia, South Carolina. I would take Gervais St. downtown from where I lived in Forest Acres. In one stretch of the road, there was a clear divide. On one side, were poor neighborhoods and some of the so-called Projects, the government housing. A white person like me would unlikely ever purposely drive into that area. But on the other side of the road was an expensive neighborhood of beautiful large houses. No black person (or even poor white person) would venture into that neighborhood, unless they had business to do there, especially not at night.

The divide was stark. There were no walls to separate the two sides of the road. Any poor black person theoretically could cross the street and go into that wealthy white neighborhood, and vice versa, but I doubt it happened very often. That stretch of road and the neighborhoods on either side probably were heavily policed. That road was a well-maintained border, as if it were a wall.

I drove down that street on a regular basis. I stopped thinking about how strange it was. It just became part of the background. If you lived there your whole life, you’d probably never give it any thought at all. It is similar to how it never occurs to many white people in the North how the town they live in ended up all white or that it ever had a black population.

What interests me is what is not thought about and so not seen.

5 thoughts on “Southern Sundown Neighborhoods

  1. Today there aren’t really “hard” enforcements in that sense, but it’s more ‘indirect’ on minorities.

    The War on Drugs is really if you think about it, a war on people of color. It’s replaced Jim Crow as the sort of way to keep people poor.

    There are other social barriers of course. It’s something that Blacks experience that is difficult for Whites to relate to because they’ve never seen anything quite like it in society.

    • Have you come across Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. It is one of the best books I’ve read on the issue of racism. If you haven’t read it yet, you should do so.

      There are many ways to enforce segregation. Some are overt, but most aren’t. Even during slavery, most of the social order was kept in place through social customs and practices that weren’t directly violent and oppressive, although there was always a threat in the background.

      These days, some of the practices include not just racially biased policing but also such things as redlining.

  2. I’m wondering if there will be an entrenched sort of movement against Generation Y that will keep our generation poor, out of work, in a manner not unlike what minorities face.

    Right now, finding work is pretty hard, even in the supposedly attractive majors, as I am learning the hard way. What I am concerned about is that things could somehow snowball in a manner not unlike for people of color.

    Perhaps if the far right gets its way, there will be.

    • Racism in America has always been the model for classism.

      For example, poor whites have for a long been treated as a gray area. Back in the day, many poor whites weren’t even considered white. Early British and Anglo-Americans often compared the Irish to Africans and Native Americans. They were somehow ‘other’. Poor whites in the rural South are still treated as ‘other’.

      The racial order is about social control, as is the class order. Demographics are destabilizing that order. With bi-racial children and race-switching hispanics, with once middle class whites falling into the working class or even outright poverty, with all of this the boundaries have become fuzzy. Being white with a good education no longer means what it once did. No one is safe and secure for almost anyone is now expendable in a world where there are more people than jobs and the remaining jobs are getting worse.

      The comparison that might be the most helpful is that of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The young generations now have high rates of immigrants and children of immigrants. That was also true a hundred years ago. The KKK hated the ethnic “hyphenated” Americans as much as they hated blacks. They hated these ethnic immigrants because they challenged the white social order that kept everyone in their place.

      The Lost Generation were treated like crap by their elders. They were feared and despised. Most of them were born into poverty and desperation. They started out life as dirty little children running around the streets without parents, for their parents were in the factories. They joined gangs and mobs. They made moonshine and did what it took to make ends meet. They became WWI veterans and so the first generation of Americans to see the world, coming home with shell shock, alcoholism, and drug addiction. They were a generation of great artists and thinkers challenging all that came before.

      The young generations now are in a similar situation. Old people fear what the future is bringing, and the young are symbolic of all they fear. The young are increasingly becoming poor and desperate, and it likely will only get worse.

  3. This post was based on personal observation and speculation. I didn’t have any clear data about the entire South to prove my suspicions, but I just now came across such data.

    It’s not just about segregation by town, by neighborhood, or by church. Segregation takes many forms, some harder to see than others. In my example from this post, these people might live across the street from one another, and yet that street acts as a barrier of segregation. Are they in the same neighborhood or not?

    What is interesting about the following data is that some kind of social force created segregation in the South where it hadn’t previously existed. If it wasn’t sundown towns causing this, what was it?

    An important new study suggests that is not the case. The work, by economists Trevon Logan of The Ohio State University and John Parman of the College of William and Mary, and released as a working paper this month from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), takes a detailed look at the experience of racial segregation in the United States and finds that there are many flaws in our conventional understanding of racial segregation.

    Their painstaking research goes back to the detailed manuscript files of the 1880 and 1940 U.S. Censuses to determine how and why racial segregation changed during that period, and if it got better or worse.

    The researchers use these original census documents to develop an intriguing new measure of segregation. For a long time, census takers collected detailed and sequenced information about who lived next door to whom. Using these papers, the authors are able to zoom in on those who lived next door to neighbors of different races. By tracking segregation this way—on a household-by-household level, rather than by neighborhood—they are able to identify segregation in any kind of community, rural or urban, large or small, without having to worry about the way neighborhood boundaries or definitions have changed over time.

    The researchers track racial segregation across rural and urban areas, from North to South but also across other regions of the country. They do so for two key moments in the history of U.S. segregation and race relations: 1880 and 1940. In 1880, some Reconstruction-era Civil Rights legislation was still being enforced, but the Jim Crow period was not yet in full swing. The 1940 census figures capture the large-scale migration of blacks from the South to the North, but they come before the great American move to the suburbs and of white flight. In between these two time periods, the black U.S. population went from being largely rural to largely urban. As the authors point out, roughly 90 percent of black U.S. households lived outside of cities in 1870; by 1940, more than half lived in urban areas.

    The work’s key findings are as startling as they are troubling, and recast what we think we know about segregation.

    Residential segregation happened all over the country

    For one, instead of simply increasing as America industrialized, modernized and became more urban, Logan and Parman find that segregation as measured by their neighbor analysis actually doubled across the U.S. between 1880 and 1940. This dramatic change was not due to national population or racial composition shifts, the authors show. As the map below from the study demonstrates, the change actually occurred throughout the country, in areas not limited to the urban context in which we often discuss residential segregation.

    As Logan and Parman write, “segregation was equally likely to exist in rural communities as in urban ones.” In fact, as they point out, “the focus on urban segregation has told a partial story about segregation in the United States.”

    The analysis finds that black households were 25 percent less likely to live next to a neighbor of another race in 1940 than they were in 1880. And rather than simply being a function of the Great Migration to the North or of white flight, this increase in racial segregation occurred all over the United States. Areas that both gained black residents (like the urban North) and lost them (the rural South) saw increased racial segregation over this period.

    But racial sorting was most pronounced in the South

    Second, the economists find residential segregation to be consistently higher in the South versus the North. This conclusion comes from the researchers’ novel approach to the census, which looks at neighboring households. As they write, “while blacks and whites occupied the same wards and districts in southern cities, they were the least likely to be neighbors.” Their research in this area focuses on the East, Midwest and South, by far the most populated regions of the U.S. during the period. According to this measure, black households experienced the most segregation in the East South Central and West South Central regions, including states like Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky. This was true in both 1880 and 1940. Additionally, Logan and Parman find that urban areas in the South were actually more segregated than Northern cities, “a new finding that runs counter to the conclusions reached using traditional measures.”

    This finding may be key to understanding racial segregation today and in the future. “The strong persistence of our segregation measure suggests that the roots of contemporary segregation may be more varied that previously thought,“ write the authors. “Both rural and urban areas had different levels of segregation that were highly persistent over time.”

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