Last Monday Erica Chenoweth, Christian Davenport and I had an informal discussion about race in America. We posted it to YouTube. Two days later The New York Times carried a story / video titled “A Conversation with White People about Race.” The Times reporters wrote:
Because we live in New York, where there is no shortage of opinions, we didn’t think it would be too hard to find white people willing to speak publicly on this topic. We were wrong.
Big surprise, right? My experience is that most white folks are reluctant to speak about race, so I expect that they would be especially unlikely to do so “on the record” in a video that the Times is going to publish for all to see.
We noted that problem in our discussion, and wondered what might be done to be make white folks more willing to discuss, and see, race and especially institutional racism. We identified one potentially useful approach to help white folks who want to engage their white family, friends and neighbors.
As Erica wrote when she posted the video to Facebook, “Be forewarned that at least for my part, this is much more musing than analysis.” I’ll double that. But, for what it is worth, this is what we came up with on this issue.
We decided that at least three things likely contribute to white Americans’s discomfort discussing institutional racism.
1. Cognitive Dissonance: humans tend to become psychologically stressed, and even angry, when confronted with information that is at odds with their current beliefs / understanding. We tend to discount, ignore or object to such information, thereby eliminating that stress.
2. Compassion Fatigue: media coverage of complex problems that focus attention on the negative consequences of the problems and little attention to potential solutions tends to make consumers of media tune out when that problem is raised.
3. Culpability/Guilt Avoidance: humans naturally prefer to avoid culpability / guilt for a wrong, and we all know that racism is a biased system foisted by whites upon people of color. It follows that if racism is a thing of the past, I, as a white person, am not culpable, but if institutional racism still exists, then my culpability / guilt is something to be considered, explored, negotiated.
These strike us as three good reasons why so many white folks tend to be uncomfortable raising race and institutional racism.
What To Do: Got A Solution?
Erica suggested that the best approach is to start a conversation by explaining that you used to view things just like they do, to “meet them where they’re at, and then walk them through the transformation you had.”
Interestingly, James Loewen takes this approach in his book Sundown Towns, a book about the racial cleansing and discriminatory housing practices, circa 1890-1960, that produced contemporary segregation patterns throughout the country. The title references the explosion of these signs outside towns throughout the Midwest during that period.
He includes a section in the Introduction titled “My Own Ignorance,” and writes:
This backlash against African Americans was not limited to the South but was national. Neither the public nor most historians realize that the same earthquake struck the North, too.
Initially, I too thought sundown towns, being so extreme, must be extremely rare. Having learned of perhaps a dozen sundown towns and counties—Anna and Edina; Cicero and Berwyn, suburbs of Chicago; Darien, Connecticut, a suburb of New York City; Cedar Key, Florida; Forsyth County, Georgia; Alba and Vidor, Texas; and two or three others—I imagined there might be 50 such towns in the United States. I thought a book about them would be easy to research and write. I was wrong.
Coming of age in central Illinois, however, I never asked why the little towns clustered about my home city had no black residents. After all, I reasoned, some communities are not on major highways, rivers, or rail lines; are not near African American population concentrations; and have not offered much in the way of employment. Probably
they never attracted African American residents. I had no idea that almost all all-white towns and counties in Illinois were all-white on purpose. The idea that intentional sundown towns were everywhere in America, or at least everywhere in the Midwest, hit me between the eyes two years into this research—on October 12, 2001.
Loewen, who is white, knows he is telling people about a history they have not known. So in the Introduction to his book he gets personal, confesses his own ignorance, and then describes his own journey from ignorance to come to learn an unpleasant history that sheds new light on understanding race in contemporary America. Perhaps we can all learn from this example.
Because it may interest you, I conclude with the final three paragraphs from Loewen’s Introduction.
To summarize, waves of ethnic cleansing swept across the United States between about 1890 and 1940, leaving thousands of sundown towns in their wake. Thousands of sundown suburbs formed even later, some as late as the 1960s. As recently as the 1970s, elite suburbs like Edina, Minnesota, would openly turn away Jewish and black would-be home buyers. Some towns and suburbs were still sundown when this book went to press in 2005.
At this point you may be shocked: how could it happen that in 1909 whites in Anna, Illinois, might run every African American resident out of their community, never to return? That many other towns across the United States could take similar actions as late as 1954? That Hawthorne, California, had a sign at its city limits in the 1930s that said, “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Set On YOU In Hawthorne”? Or that Minden and Gardnerville, Nevada, sounded a whistle at 6 PM to tell all American Indians to get out of town before sundown?
To understand how so many sundown towns formed in the United States, we must examine the era—1890 to 1940—that gave rise to them.
 I must have clicked something b/c my camera dominates the screen throughout, which is an error for which I apologize. The speaker is supposed to be full screen.
 A few historical headlines about a few of the “cleansings.” Elliott Jaspin’s book, Buried in the Bitter Waters, provides a highly readable account of several of these events.
 Similar signs targeting Asian and Hispanic Americans were common throughout the West.
 You can download the Intro chapter here (PDF).