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James Loewen's Books

I am just starting to read Sundown Towns, the latest book by Dr. James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America.

Wow...

I'll post a full review of Sundown Towns when I've finished the book. But so far, it is stunning, in a blow-to-the-head-from-behind kind of way. I guarantee that it will change your perception of race relations in America substantially.


For those not familiar with Dr. Loewen's earlier works, it's worth some recap. Loewen is a professional sociologist and a skilled historian. Lies My Teacher Told Me is an utterly brutal and compelling critique of high-school American History textbooks and teaching. It would take a full review of this book to do it justice. The basic argument, and an extremely well-supported one, is that these textbooks are of such poor quality that one would hesitate to use them as fuel in their home; further, that this lack of quality is partly (largely?) a result of pressure upon the publishers to make America, specifically American government, look good. One of the main themes of Loewen's book is the consistent whitewashing and misrepresentation of racial issues in these history textbooks. Indeed, I was a little annoyed with his degree of focus on this topic; I felt that it slightly unbalanced the critique he was trying to write.

Lies Across America continues this theme in an interesting way. Loewen travels across the US reading those "historical markers" you see along the roads, and comparing them with actual history. Surprisingly (to me), the markers come up wanting in major ways. Again, race relations are a big focus of the inaccuracies. Who knew that the United Daughters of the Confederacy put up so many historical markers?

In Sundown Towns, Loewen finally dedicates a whole book to a race relations issue. It's a shocker. According to Loewen, perhaps the majority of American small towns in the 1890-1940 era systematically and openly excluded African-Americans. This is a strong claim, but his research is quite good, and other professional historians who have looked at his research seem to find it good. Ever wonder why African-Americans did not and do not leave the slums and ghettos of big cities for the rest of the country? Turns out it may mainly be because of a real threat of violent persecution---even in 2005.

The title of Loewen's latest book echos a once-popular nickname for these whites-only towns, derived from signs that were posted outside many of them openly proclaiming that "Negroes better not let the sun set on them in this town".

I'm not sure what I find most disturbing about Dr. Loewen's excellent work—there's so much to choose from. Apparently America is engaged in an Orwellian enterprise that systematically misrepresents its history to the general populace. Professional historians know this; Loewen claims that the first thing a typical college Introduction to American History class for majors does is try to help the incoming students forget everything they've been told and start over. America is also apparently engaged in massive schizophrenia over racism. Increasing segregation and class division helps to keep blacks ignorant about whites and vice-versa, while education and the media tell both sides a fiction story about what's happening.

One of the things I've enjoyed most about Loewen's books is that he is clearly one of those fanatics that are always wandering around espousing some crackpot theory, with a heavy dose of conspiracy about it. Except that Loewen is also a first-rate scholar who has persuaded me that his crackpot conspiracy theory is true. His work is a great reminder that unorthodox ideas can be right, and orthodox ideas can be horribly wrong. "Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence" —Carl Sagan. The exciting thing about Loewen is that he understands this and brings that evidence.

Read these books. You will regret it, but only because you will lose some innocence.

Comments

Checkout the homepage http://www.uvm.edu/~jloewen/sundowntowns.php and look at the map for towns that continue today to attempt to exclude minorities.It's Not just historical information. It's a continuing situation for many minorities.

I just finished reading "Freakonomics" (Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt: freakonomics.com). Among other rather interesting insights, there are arguments against the conventional (American?) wisdom of the "black-white test score gap" - one more example of racism in the US. How far is it from believing this to trying to keep your city "clean"? I don't know, but it just shows how deeply rooted and widely spread some "comforting" beliefs are, not just in a few towns somewhere. If this worries you and you are from the US, it may be "comforting", that the US is not the only place where people find such ideas "comforting" truths. Well, I am not from the US, so it worries me...