If everyone’s white, do you even realize the racism is there?

Sundown TownsI’ve probably mentioned here before that I grew up in Austin, Minnesota, a.k.a. Spamtown USA. Of course I noticed growing up that there were few if any African-Americans in town, but it had never occurred to me that there might once have been, and I was never told of any racial conflicts that had ever taken place.

In fact, race (at least the black/white divide) was almost a non-existent concept in my childhood. In the ’80s there were quite a few people in town of Asian descent, mostly refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, which was a source of its own kind of tension, but I’m sure I was at least 10 before I saw a black person in real life (although by then I knew Gordon, Susan, David and Olivia from Sesame Street quite well).

I’m not sure if I had ever even heard the term sundown town until today, when I happened to be searching online for something completely unrelated about Austin, and I was even more surprised to learn about a disturbing incident that took place in my hometown in 1922.

These days racial tension is going strong in Austin, due in large part to changes that have taken place in the economic environment of the city. So race is mixed up, along with economic class, immigration and labor union issues, into a complex and for the most part poorly-understood stew of thinly-veiled hatred, anger and frustration on every side.

I guess it just goes to show that the history of race relations in this country is far more complicated and troubled than many of us even know. In an election year where, for the first time, both a woman and an African-American have a real chance of becoming our next president, it’s important to reflect on how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.