Connecting sundown towns and votes for Trump in Wisconsin

Sundown towns were once common in the North and one academic looks at the connections between such communities and voting for Donald Trump:

Did sundown towns elect Trump in Wisconsin? My research assistant, Kathryn Robinson, and I tried to find out. Since it is much easier to get county-level election returns than municipal ones, we concentrated on “sundown counties,” those having a county seat that could be established as a sundown town or likely sundown town in Loewen’s mapping. An incredible 58 of the state’s 72 counties fit into such a category. Of the 58 sundown counties 31 are 1% or less African American (and only eight more than 2%), suggesting that the proxy of the county seat works in identifying sundown areas at the county level.

The simple answer on Trump and sundown towns in Wisconsin is: “Clearly they elected him.” Sundown counties gave Trump almost 935,000 votes to Clinton’s just over 678,000. His margin in the sundown areas exceeded 256,000 votes. That Clinton won the fifteen non-sundown counties by almost 230,000 votes could not make up for Trump’s 58% to 42% margin in the sundown ones. Just short of two/thirds of all Trump voters in Wisconsin came from sundown counties. Only nine sundown counties chose Clinton with 49 for Trump…

Our appreciation of the critically important historical dimension to sundown voting—both Robinson and I are trained in that discipline—ironically came through a sociologist. That is, when I contacted Loewen to outline the project to him, he mentioned having recently been to Calhoun County, a tiny sundown county in Illinois near where I grew up. That county, he told me, had voted for Obama in the same proportions as the rest of the country in 2008. I then looked up its 2016 vote, a landslide for Trump. Robinson and I had reason to wonder if a similar swing from Obama to Trump characterized the 2008 to 2016 trajectory of sundown county voters in Wisconsin.

The pattern could hardly been more striking. In 2008, Barack Obama defeated John McCain in all but eight of Wisconsin’s sundown counties. These virtually all-white counties delivered to the African American candidate a majority of nearly 143,000 votes. The fifteen very small sundown counties discussed above supported Obama in 2008 by 57.4% to 42.6%. The countervailing continuity lay in the metro Milwaukee suburbancounties, where the vote went to the conservative candidate in both 2008 and 2016, by overwhelming margins in both cases. The intervening 2012 election proved a halfway house, with the Milwaukee suburban counties solidly for Romney but Obama splitting the other sundown counties with the Republican ticket. By 2016, just under 400,000 votes had switched from the Democratic to the Republican candidate in sundown Wisconsin. Outside of the sundown counties the pro-Republican swing from 2008 to 2016 was just 17,000 votes.

It would be worthwhile to see such research carried out elsewhere as there were more sundown towns than people imagine (even if actual laws or records about them are difficult to find).

While Loewen alerts us to this important history, it is also interesting to consider how sundown counties or towns can experience rapid racial and ethnic change. This article cites a rural community that suddenly had an influx of Latino workers for several manufacturing plants. Or, imagine some suburban areas after World War Two that had rapid development and demographic change. I’m thinking of Naperville, Illinois, a sundown town that due to high quality residential and job growth is a suburb today that is increasingly non-white and where city leaders praise the growing diversity. Is there a point where the effects of being a sundown town disappear or could such effects pop up again depending on the situation (economic factors, racial and ethnic change, certain leaders, etc.)?

The difficulty in finding records of sundown laws

A sociologist discusses the difficulty in finding written records of sundown laws in Canadian communities:

He also looked at how the memory of slavery is being impacted, citing the difficulty in finding the existence of so-called “sundown” laws that required Blacks to be off the streets at night in many Ontario communities as recently as the 1960s.

There’s references to sundown laws existing, but Kitossa said, “what I find surprising is that the historians, themselves, are actually not providing the empirical evidence to say that we have this bylaw issue here or repealed on this date.”

While he can’t find any evidence of these laws on the books, he’s heard many anecdotal accounts from people about them.

“Whether the laws existed or not, people have these stories and so they believed it to be true,” he said. “So, belief constitutes its own reality.”

From a sociological point of view, Kitossa said this situation tells him “there’s a way that people talk about what to remember and what not to remember, and what to record and what not to record.”

It makes him think of the Japanese internment during the Second World War where the adults that were interned basically stopped talking about their experience.

On one hand, this could be cited as evidence that sundown laws were not as pervasive as important because they were never formalized. On the other hand, Kitossa echoes a famous sociological quote from W. I. Thomas: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” Sundown laws don’t need to be officially proposed, debated, and written down in order to be put into action and enforced.

Indeed, this is what James Loewen found in his study Sundown Townswhich argues a majority of communities in the northern United States had such rules. Few communities had signs at the edge of town that displayed such rules and few had formal ordinances. Yet, community memories were strong about the presence of such rules as whites tried to limit the presence of blacks and other minorities.

One might even make the argument that these informal rules are more powerful than formal rules as they didn’t even need to be codified to be in effect.

Sociologist James Loewen continues to educate about sundown towns

Sociologist James Loewen has made a career of instructing Americans about the real racial history of the country. He continues to educate people about his findings laid out in Sundown Towns:

By not parrying the South’s attempts to further racism, the North placated the South. In fact, the South began building memorials because, in philosophy, they did win the Civil War. One reason northern states withdrew their efforts was the fact that they were already ridden with Sundown towns, especially in the Midwest. As stated before, Sundown towns gained their reputation from attempting to drive out their black population by dark.

“More than half of towns in the Midwest were Sundown towns,” Loewen said.

In fact, the reputation of former Dearborn mayor Orville L. Hubbard, whose statue stands in front of City Hall, comes from his dedication to maintaining a Sundown Town in Dearborn.

Remnants of Sundown Towns in Detroit are observable today in former residences such as the Orsel McGhee household located at 4626 Seebaldt Ave. The Orsel Mc-Ghees were an African-America family that attempted to moved into a segregated, white neighborhood of Detroit in 1944 but were forced to move after a lawsuit was brought against them.

Another case was the Ossian Sweet case, where Sweet, a black doctor, attempted to defend his home against a white mob that sought to drive him out of a white segregated community on Sept. 9, 1925. A 1985 Dearborn ordinance, passed by an overwhelming white majority vote, made city parks off-limits to non-residents, a measure created to prevent black would-be homeowners from moving in. Loewen also spoke about Anna, Ill., circa 1909. White residents, with the help of local government officials, began to force out blacks and Anna became an acronym for “Ain’t no N Allowed.”

One fairly recent, yet baffling, example that Loewen presented was the case of Villa Grove, Ill. Until 1999, Villa Grove sounded a siren every day at 6 p.m. to warn blacks to leave the city. Similar problems were prevalent in the 1970s despite the Supreme Court’s “Shelley v. Kraemer” ruling stating that state courts could not enforce a restrictive covenant. In this context, a restrictive covenant is a clause in a deed that limits to whom a property can be leased or sold.

Not too many communities are interested in sharing these parts of their history. Loewen’s findings are all the more shocking when he makes clear that this was common across northern communities, places that many Americans learn and think were more open to blacks than Southern communities.

Even though sundown towns are no longer with us, sociologists argue these more formal rules have been replaced by more informal means of keeping minorities and lower class residents out of suburbs. One common technique is exclusionary zoning, a practice where communities only allow larger and more expensive homes to be built. Without much affordable housing, employees in lower income jobs, ranging from municipal workers to retail and service jobs, often cannot live near their suburban jobs and then must also maintain a car, an expensive proposition in itself.

More evidence of a racist North: disparities in incarceration rates by race existed in late 1800s

There is a disparity across racial groups in incarceration rates in the United States today. But this is not a recent phenomenon: a recently published sociological study argues this dates back to the late 1800s.

Since 1970, the percentage of Americans in prison has skyrocketed; the incarceration rate is especially pronounced among blacks. Though it’s often assumed that the racial disparity came along with the surge in incarceration, a recent study by a sociologist at Harvard suggests that the disparity originated earlier, with the emigration of blacks from the South. Not only was the racial disparity in incarceration higher in the North to begin with, but it rose sharply in the North after 1880, even while dropping sharply in the South after 1900. What exacerbated the racial disparity in the North was the fact that blacks were competing with lower-class immigrants from Europe, many of whom—particularly the Irish—had come to dominate law enforcement and were looking for any excuse to arrest blacks. In a sense, the Irish—who, ironically, had gotten a reputation as troublemakers when they first immigrated—traded places with blacks. “As the incarceration rate of Irish immigrants and their children in Great Migration states declined from 245 to 158 people per 100,000 between 1880 and 1950, the nonwhite incarceration rate leapt from 203 to 594.”

Muller, C., “Northward Migration and the Rise of Racial Disparity in American Incarceration, 1880–1950,” American Journal of Sociology (September 2012).

This is more evidence that the North has had a long history of issues over race after the Civil War. The typical narrative often doesn’t allow for this; the story often goes that the South was the racist and discriminatory part of the country and the Jim Crow laws prove this. But the North may not have been much better. In addition to these differences in incarceration rates, there is evidence of:

1. Increasing levels of residential segregation between whites and blacks emerging in many Northern cities in the early 1900s. As the Great Migration picked up, blacks were pushed to live in black areas, not in white neighborhoods. For example, the thousands upon thousands of blacks who entered the city were forced into the Black Belt. See the book American Apartheid, among other research.

2. Many smaller Northern communities had “sundown laws” that did not allow blacks to stay in the community after dark. While blacks had unprecedented residential mobility in the two decades after the Civil War, these new sundown rules pushed blacks back into major cities. See the book Sundown Towns.