3.12.08

ADVERSE SELF-SELECTION. During my stay in Detroit, a neighbor once mentioned that Warren police would advise Blacks to not let the sun go down on them in that suburb. Now comes James W. Loewen's Sundown Towns, which confirms that, and tells much more about the attitudes and unofficial policies that rendered what the press and the policy makers called de facto residential segregation, generally in the North, effectively de jure segregation, despite the Supreme Court having made the controlling laws unconstitutional as early as 1917. Professor Loewen began his work after hearing a number of stories similar to my Warren experience, only in central Illinois, near Decatur. He began his work with the prior that he might be able to find maybe fifty such towns in the contiguous 48 states. The subject of Book Review No. 45 is a book that claims over 400 in Illinois alone. Information technology operates in such a way today that the book is relatively short (although I will argue it could be shortened and expanded) with much supporting evidence in an instructive website. The website is straightforward. The book repeats itself, and it tends to sensationalize. It may not be necessary to repeat the text of the canonical sundown sign numerous times, as Professor Loewen does. The story he tells at page 222 about the small child thinking a sign bans crayons after dark (the local term being "colors") only to learn it's a politer variation on the usual locution is much more persuasive. Likewise, he alternates between invocations of official policy and unofficial tradition in describing other indicators of sundown towns. The most glaring such illustration is the tradition of the six p.m. siren, which residents of at least one Illinois town told him, or not, was a reminder to any Blacks doing business in that town. At that town's latitude, six p.m. is after sunset five months out of the year, and long before sunset three months. As a reinforcement of oral tradition, however, it works. That oral tradition served as the principal technology of control. The Supreme Court might have ruled in 1917 that sundown ordinances were unconstitutional, but if town officials behaved as if there were no such controlling legal authority, the law might as well be in effect. (Police and private security workers harass railfan photographers on the same principle.)

Professor Loewen suggests that some isolated small towns still cling to their sundown principles. Many of them have been bypassed by the modern economy, leading to a situation in which descendants of the Black population, chased out after real or imagined crimes, or labor strife, or unprovoked meanness, cluster in the urban ghettoes, while descendants of the White population that provoked the chasing cluster in their sundown towns. The recreational drugs are different, the music is different, the crabbed lifestyles are the same, Black Rednecks and White Liberals in microcosm.

The book's focus on sundown suburbs, which generally did not post signs, and enforced segregation through the real estate market, or zoning restrictions that raised the construction cost of a house, is more instructive, as current patterns of suburbanization, and the current prestige hierarchy among suburbs is, according to Professor Loewen, path-dependent.

There's a prima facie case in Greater Detroit, where a very poor neighborhood in northeast Detroit abuts Grosse Pointe, with a well-kept and well-fenced park for Grosse Pointe residents in plain sight of the houses in Detroit. There's also a concrete wall built by a developer in order to separate neighborhoods in Detroit itself, in order that White citizens could qualify for Federal Housing Administration mortgages in a neighborhood on one side of that wall. A visit to Google Maps will confirm the existence of the wall. Locate Wyoming and Eight Mile, go to maximum zoom, and look between Madison and Birwood, a few blocks west of Wyoming.

The phenomenon, however, generalizes. Professor Loewen suggests that the resulting segregation on racial and class lines deprives people of opportunities to broaden their horizons. He offers suggestions for people who would like to change things. Here, however, his analysis becomes too ambitious. In the absence of universal vouchers, residential choice is school choice. Professor Loewen attempts to argue that people bidding up house prices in order to pursue better test scores for their children is misguided owing to biases in the test design. He also argues that a high-schooler with a high test score in a district with a lower average test score is at no disadvantage relative to a high-schooler with the same test score in a district with a higher average test score, inadvertently conceding some value in the standardized tests. Perhaps he's right. On the other hand, the school district with the lower test score might be one in which the lower-performing students are dragging down the level of instruction that goes on. That's an incentive for parents to shop for school districts with higher test scores, sundown history or not.

Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.

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