The Return of 'Sundown' Towns?

A tough law against illegal immigrants in Nebraska could revive the whites-only-at-night towns of our Jim Crow past.

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Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. Perhaps that’s the reason 57 percent of voters in Fremont, Neb., passed a controversial law that prohibits "harboring or hiring illegal aliens."

The ordinance requires employers to check the residency status of each potential hire on the E-Verify database, a voluntary program run by the Department of Homeland Security. The law is stronger than federal policy, which allows employers to voluntarily subscribe to the database. When it comes to renting, though, the ordinance is downright tough. A prospective tenant must buy a $5 occupancy license from the police and present it to the landlord. However, one license won’t do. A new move now requires a new license. And every person over 18 who lives in the household must get one. Hotels, dormitories and the city’s one homeless shelter are exempt from the law. So are folks hiring day laborers, janitors or domestics. The law has no force outside the city limits. That loophole excludes the two meatpacking plants that provide jobs to area Hispanics.

So guess where undocumented workers--or folks who could be mistaken for them--are probably going to stay? And that’s why the vote in Fremont harks to an unsavory past. The town has mimicked a method that thousands of American municipalities used in the past to keep their populations as white as possible.

There’s a name for such places. They’re called "sundown towns," as in a warning to African Americans, Chinese, Jews and other undesirables to be out of town before dusk. Sociologist James W. Loewen wrote the book on the phenomenon. That book is called, appropriately enough, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension in American Racism. "Between 1890 and continuing until 1968, white Americans established thousands of towns for whites only," he writes. "Many towns drove out their black populations then posted sundown signs. Other towns passed ordinances barring African Americans after dark, or prohibiting them from owning or renting property. ... Some sundown towns similarly kept out Jews, Chinese Mexicans...or other groups."

After his book was published in 2005, Loewen created a website to collect comments and stories about sundown towns. One comment claimed that Fremont had a sundown sign warning African Americans to keep moving. Of course, a less welcoming term was used. Whether Fremont had a sundown sign is still open to debate. It's undeniable, however, that the town is going brown.

While the African American population is minuscule--only .2 percent of the city’s 26,000 residents--Hispanics are 7.8 percent of the population, according to the last U.S. Census Bureau estimates from 2008. Non-Hispanic whites made up 93 percent of the population; in 2000, they were 95 percent of residents. The town is still white. Apparently the majority of Fremont voters want to make sure it stays that way.

But how will folks know who is here legally and who isn’t? Race is going to play a role, and that’s why anyone who resembles a so-called illegal is right to worry. Euro-Americans don’t have a good track record when it comes to distinguishing people of color. The late David Mills wrote a biting commentary on the tendency on his blog, Undercover Blackman. But the consequences were tragic for Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh from India, and Vincent Chen, who was Chinese. Sodhi was killed by a white man angry about 9/11. Chen was beaten by an autoworker with a vendetta against Japanese carmakers.

Linda Nafziger voted for the ordinance even though she didn’t believe it would stanch illegal immigration. "They'll just move somewhere else and be somebody else's problem," she told the AP reporter. And that’s the point, right? "They" can go anywhere they want. "They" just have to get out of Fremont--preferably before the sun goes down.

Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs writes regularly on race and identity issues for The Root.

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