‘Midwest nice’ hides a history of racial terror and segregation
Despite a deep and surprising history of racism and the current reality of racial violence, the region has managed to avoid much scrutiny due to the myth that it is majority white. Many white people in the Midwest can live their lives with little or no interaction with black people, not seeing the lack of racial diversity as a problem. This leads some Midwestern whites to construct a narrative that “race is not an issue here.” Indeed, the “Midwestern nice” trope has helped some Midwestern white people see themselves as outside the racist structures of our country.
But in reality, the lack of racial diversity is often the result of the historical maintenance of white spaces through racial segregation and the threat of violence in “sunset cities.” Policies and practices have kept these spaces entirely white, and their legacy still plays a major role in shaping the Midwest today.
In the mid-20th century, some 6 million black Americans fled the terrors of the Jim Crow South in search of better economic opportunities in northern states, including Midwestern cities. This migration was met with great hostility and violence from white people in the Midwest. Although their work is sometimes welcomed, black Americans are often denied access to resources and struggle to meet their basic needs. In particular, it was difficult to find decent housing, as Midwestern communities and governments struggled to maintain strict residential racial segregation.
As the black population continued to grow in the Midwest, the federal government created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), an agency designed to promote homeownership, in 1934 as part of President Franklin’s New Deal. D.Roosevelt. Instead of helping to increase blacks’ access to housing, however, the FHA deepened racial residential segregation. The agency denied black Americans mortgages to buy property in neighborhoods that would allow them to do so, an act commonly known as redlining. Simultaneously, as researcher Richard Rothstein documentedthe FHA subsidized homebuilders who built white-only housing estates with racial covenants that prohibited homes from being sold or occupied by blacks, an act of government largesse that boosted white wealth while diminishing black opportunities.
Despite the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, many of these housing policies left a lasting legacy of residential racial segregation in the Midwest. Today, the region is home to six of the 10 most segregated cities in the country, and it remains a landscape that limits interaction between blacks and whites in the Midwest.
Yet it is not just formal politics that have shaped spaces in the Midwest. Midwestern whites enforced the color line through the practice of “cities at sunsetwhere black Americans could provide labor during the day but had to leave after “sunset” for fear of violent assault or worse. Some of these cities have also relied on formal local or state ordinances to exclude black Americans and keep spaces entirely white. White Americans sometimes murdered black Americans who violated the unwritten rules and were found in cities as the sun went down after dark. As sociologist Heather A. O’Connell Remarks“Sunset Cities are a key, yet often invisible, part of our history that has radically reshaped the social and demographic landscape of the United States.”
Martinsville, Ind., was known within the black community as a sunset town with a long history of Ku Klux Klan activity. It became a site of horrific racial violence when a young black woman, 21-year-old Carol Jenkins, found herself in the town in 1968.
Jenkins was only in town for a few hours for work. She was traveling with colleagues, including two white men and another young black woman. The group was selling encyclopedias door-to-door in a residential neighborhood when they opted to split up to cover more ground and agreed to meet at a local gas station later that night.
But something went wrong. Jenkins realized she was being followed by white men in a sedan and sought refuge outside the door of Don and Norma Neal, a local white couple who called the Martinsville Police Department, who offered little information. ‘aid. After unsuccessfully trying to reconnect with his colleagues in the surrounding blocks, Jenkins thanked the Neals for their time and help and started walking towards the gas station. Just a block from the station, two men jumped out of a car, pinned Jenkins to the ground, and stabbed her in the heart with a screwdriver, leaving her to die in the street.
Unfortunately, Jenkins’ murder was one of the many others like it. Such violence helped maintain strict spatial segregation, making it too dangerous for Black Midwesterners to exist in spaces that sought to exclude them.
For decades, Jenkins’ case went unsolved by the Martinsville Police Department. It was not until 2002 that one of the killers was arrested after their daughter came forward to identify his father. The other killer was never identified. It was only late in 2017 that the city presented a memory stone honoring Jenkins to his parents, with plans for a matching stone commemorating his life and death to be placed near Martinsville City Hall. Yet, as the city finally acknowledges this history, the generational trauma remains, and the policies and practices of residential racial segregation and sunset towns have an enduring legacy.
When a city is almost entirely white today, it may appear to its inhabitants as natural, rather than an outcome that has been designed and applied over time. When white people in the Midwest navigate their lives without interacting with black neighbors, it becomes easy for them to believe that their predominantly white communities have no problem with racism — certainly not like the South.
When white people in the Midwest deny the histories of structural racism that have shaped their region, they may see themselves as outside of racism. But people can shrug off racial slurs and embrace the trope of “nice Midwestern” politeness — and still be embedded in a larger system of exclusion and violence that harms black Americans. Until white people in the Midwest can face these difficult histories and begin to support systematic changes toward racial justice, white supremacy and divisions will persist, as will racial violence, such as the murders of George Floyd and Daunte. Wright.