One thing that I love about PBS is how it can bring things to your attention that you otherwise never would have found.
A few years ago, I was flipping through the TV channels and happened upon my local PBS affiliate, which was airing an interview with James Loewen.
The topic of discussion was his new book "Sundown Towns."
After hearing Mr. Loewen talk for a while, I was taken aback at how vile and how recent some of the racism in this country has been.
After the flip, I will comment in more depth on how this experience with PBS and Mr. Loewen relates to the incredible speech recently given in Philadelphia by Senator Barack Obama.
"A More Perfect Union"
Some excerpts of the reviews of Sundown Towns, as displayed on Amazon:
From Publishers Weekly
...Loewen's eye-opening history traces the sundown town's development and delineates the extent to which state governments and the federal government, "openly favor[ed] white supremacy" from the 1930s through the 1960s, "helped to create and maintain all-white communities" through their lending and insuring policies. "While African Americans never lost the right to vote in the North... they did lose the right to live in town after town, county after county," Loewen points out. The expulsion forced African-Americans into urban ghettoes and continues to have ramifications on the lives of whites, blacks and the social system at large...
From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com
In Oct. 2001, James W. Loewen stopped at a convenience store in the small Illinois town of Anna -- a name that, as a store clerk confirmed, stands for "Ain't No Niggers Allowed."
If Loewen's first priority is to unveil what he calls the "hidden history" of sundown towns, his second is to debunk the widely held idea that when the issue is race, the South is always "the scene of the crime," as James Baldwin famously wrote. The incidence of sundown communities in the South, Loewen reports, was actually far lower than it was in a Midwestern state such as Illinois, in which roughly 70 percent of towns were sundown towns in 1970. "This does not make whites in the traditional South less racist than [those] in . . . other regions of the country," he suggests.
With the rise of the automobile, among other things, came the birth of sundown suburbs. In 1909, Loewen reports, Chevy Chase, Md., became one of the nation's first after the owner of the Chevy Chase Land Company sued a developer to whom it had sold a parcel of land because of rumors that he planned to build affordable housing for African American workers. The company ultimately prevented the development, and the land sat vacant for decades before becoming home to Saks Fifth Avenue, its current resident. No doubt, the owner of the Chevy Chase Land Company would approve of the suburb's current racial makeup; in 2000, Loewen writes, "its 6,183 residents included just 18 people living in families with at least one African American householder." But even that isn't white enough anymore, Loewen charges: Whites are increasingly fleeing nearly all-white suburbs for lily-white exurbs, adding sprawl to the already numerous economic, psychological and sociological tolls of residential segregation...
I heard not a single, solitary peep about this issue until seeing Mr. Loewen on PBS. Not once in school (at any level), not once in a media story about civil rights, not once in a magazine article, not once during Black History Month.
How is it possible that this sort of ugliness was hidden from me so successfully for so long?
Probably not any organized plan or conspiracy of any kind. Most likely, most people probably just didn't want to talk about it because it made them feel uncomfortable. That's too bad because if the people who live in this country had been able to talk about such things in school or even just once a year on MLK Jr. Day (or any day), perhaps we would not be seeing some of the insane reactions to Senator Obama's speech that we have seen from certain portions of white America.
To hear some of them spew their venom, one would think they will be satisfied only if Rev. Wright is put in jail, stripped of all worldly posessions, run out of the country after serving his prison sentence and then shunned forevermore. Even if that were to happen, I get the impression from hearing their comments that, for most of them, it still would be considered "not good enough."
As we have seen in the wake of the Rev. Wright "reporting" in the media, it seems that this sense of discomfort about race is, in certain quarters, manifesting itself as outrage about the comments or anger that Barack Obama would dare to associate with such a malcontent. Further, they sound as if the entirety of the blame for the feelings behind Rev. Wright's statements lie within Rev. Wright and him only. I wonder if there is a direct correlation between this outrage and not being aware of sundown towns or other examples of racial injustice.
After all, if one were aware that, until civil rights legislation was passed in the 60's and, arguably, to this very day, there were systems and barriers in place to make sure that black people could not live in certain towns, might that influence your level of outrage about some angry comments made in a sermon? Would you even need to ask how it could be possible for a preacher to wonder whether or not God might damn a nation that not only failed to "do unto others..." but also allowed racism to be codified into something as basic as where people could live and, oh yeah, had it written into its founding documents?
It is my fervent hope that the people who are acting angry and self-righteous about Rev. Wright's comments and Senator Obama's "guilt" by association are able to calm down and reflect on how they might have felt if the previous generations of their family and/or friends had been on the receiving end of the many racist evils that have been so well documented.
Almost as importantly, I hope that, once they can calm down and let a few things sink in a little deeper, there will be someone in their personal orbit that can talk to them about these important issues in a compassionate and rational way, even if their initial reactions don't seem to justify such treatment. It is also my fervent hope that we don't have to wait very much longer for this to occur.
I think that the big speech given recently by my brother in humanity, Barack Obama, could prove to be the catalyst for some of those long overdue discussions.