BY PAUL VAN AUKEN
To produce a more inclusive, integrated city and region, we need to start by acknowledging our history of exclusion, to not only better understand our past, but also our present, and then take action to intentionally produce cross-cultural interaction and make it clear that we are now welcoming, even if this wasn’t always the case.
So said two scholars who spoke on consecutive days last month on different topics and at different venues, but whose arguments were remarkably similar and complementary.
Sociologist James Loewen came from Washington, D.C. to give two talks at the Fox Cities Book Festival at UW-Fox Valley in Menasha. The evening talk to a large, full room, followed UWO’s own Stephen Kercher, an historian who presented on what is now called Black Thursday, an infamous day in local history when, in the fall of 1968, a contingent of nearly 100 black students at UWO conducted a sit-in at the university president’s office and most were arrested and expelled. The author of the best-selling Lies My Teacher Told Me—about the incomplete and inaccurate history taught in public schools in the U.S.—and Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, Loewen provided some of the broader context to events like Black Thursday. He explained that hundreds of towns and cities became “sundown towns”—basically all-white on-purpose, unwelcoming to and even legally excluding African Americans and other non-white people—starting around 1890 and continuing in many places through around 1971, when fair housing laws made it more difficult to discriminate.
Appleton and other cities from this region are confirmed as sundown towns in the book, while Oshkosh is also mentioned several times because of evidence of its sundown practices. Dr. Loewen started the research in his native Illinois, where he found scores more sundown towns than he expected, and continues to document this overlooked, shameful part of our nation’s history, encouraging citizens of all ages to follow the simple steps he lays out on his website (http://sundown.afro.illinois.edu/). He does it because no one else is doing it, and he thinks it’s very important, in part because it may reveal that many places still function as sundown towns, but perhaps simply in more subtle ways, and in any case we can see the imprint of sundown pasts on the presents of many places.
He concluded by presenting “Loewen’s three-step program for transcending a sundown past.” First, acknowledge it (“we did that”.). If we can’t admit, we won’t be able to transcend, to get past it. Second, apologize for it (“we did that, and we’re sorry–it was wrong”), which should make it clear that we’re serious about the third step, which is making every effort to make the place welcoming to people from diverse backgrounds and to include them in local life. One specific recommendation was to become certified as a “Welcoming City’, which can be proclaimed at the city limits and send a much different signal than the blatantly racist signs that were found at the entrances to many sundown towns.
Chia Youyee Vang spoke the following day at UWO, for the African American Studies Program’s annual spring lecture series, with the topic, “The Need for a New Approach to Understanding Race in America: Connecting Asian/Hmong and African American Struggles in the Midwest.” Dr. Vang is a member of the history faculty at UW-Milwaukee and author of Hmong America: Reconstructing Community in Diaspora, the first major scholarly work to emerge from within the Hmong community. She has been trying to move into new terrain with her research, but “keeps getting pulled into it” because it relates to her experience as a Hmong immigrant and it is a relatively unexplored area with much more to study.
Dr. Vang recently started a new study of race relations in the upper Midwest in general, and the connections between Asian American and African American issues in particular. Echoing Loewen’s Lies, she argued that young people come to college and don’t know anything about the Vietnam War and very little about Asian Americans, as they simply “don’t have a chance to learn about it in high school.” Most adults probably couldn’t name a single Asian American civil rights activist (such as Yuri Kochiyama, a leading Japanese-American activist who worked closely with Malcolm X and was clearly not the stereotypical “quiet Asian”), let alone explain how connected the two groups are in the history of the U.S. since the late 19th century. She argued that it is important to understand the history of other racial/ethnic groups to understand how one as an individual fits into society and—again echoing Loewen—that “what happened decades ago affects what we do today.”
She concluded that we should push for two things in this regard in Wisconsin. First, we need to create safe places for community dialogues across racial/ethnic lines, such that there are opportunities to ask hard questions, such as, “we’re in the same place, but why do we live parallel lives?” Second, we should encourage students to be intentional, to go out of their way to not only learn about other cultures but also to try to collaborate with people from groups different than their own, because in diversity is strength. ν
Paul Van Auken wants people to take his friend Tish Crawford’s advice and just get over it – talk about this stuff!