I've spent the better part of the last two days reading sociologist James W. Loewen's terrific new book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. I try to avoid cliches like "must-read," but the adjective seems apt for anyone interested in race and residential segregation. Loewen's research is exhaustive and interesting, and stands as a powerful refutation of the idea that contemporary racial segregation results from voluntary choices by private actors. Loewen documents the prevalence of municipal ordinances that prohibited African Americans from residing in particular towns and shows how these ordinances were supplemented by ugly roadsigns at the town limits stating, "Ni--er, Don't let the sun set on you in [this town]." Many of these signs stayed up during the 1970s and a handful persisted into the 1990s. Loewen recounts his own investigations of many sundown towns, but perhaps the most chilling is his account of Villa Grove, Illinois, where at 6pm every evening a siren atop the town's water tower rang out, reminding African Americans to get out of town. Loewen's interviews confirmed that contemporary Villa Grove's residents understood full well the siren's purpose. The siren-sounding practice continued until 1999[!] when it ceased, not because of shame or belated signs of conscious among the town's residents, but because residents living near the water tower complained about the noise.
Loewen proposes a number of remedies to the problem of persisently all-white residential enclaves. I disagree with some of his proposals, but an interesting part of his project is to draw attention to towns like Elwood, Indiana; Windsor, Illinois; and Corbin, Kentucky, that remained, in the 2000 census, free or almost free of African American residents despite efforts by African Americans to buy homes there and live in peace. Loewen hopes that residents of these communities will be shamed by the attention, and that this embarssment will cause them to change their tune. There's plainly something to be said for this approach, though I worry that publicizing these communities' demographics will make them even more of a magnet for white racists. But it may well be the case that Chicago Tribune and Washington Post cover stories that focus on extreme outlier communities like Elwood will prompt residents of the overwhelmingly white, affluent, largely-gated communities that are springing up all over the country to start asking hard questions about why many of their own communities exhibit so little racial diversity. For an extended discussion of these issues, including an examination of whether a desire for white racial residential homogeneity explained the residential golf course boom of the 1980s and 1990s, see my recently posted paper here.