Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher is facing criticism for a comment he made to a colleague on a livestream that appeared to reference sundown towns. Fletcher says the comment was not racially motivated, despite the fact that sundown town practices were inherently motivated by racism.
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher is facing backlash for a comment he made to a colleague about how police used to be able to treat suspected criminals.
“100 years ago, though, we woulda just told them, ‘OK, son, you got ’til sundown to get outta of town,” Fletcher said during one of his regular livestream broadcasts called “Live on Patrol.” The comment drew swift rebuke from local politicians and on social media after the Twitter account Whittier Cop Watch posted a clip from the broadcast.
Critics connected his words with the history of “sundown towns” – places where residents enforced segregation by preventing people of color from living there or even entering after a certain time. Dr. Christopher Lehman, a professor of Ethnic Studies at St. Cloud State University, says these sundown policies could be a local law or an unwritten understanding.
“There are some sundown towns in which it was perfectly fine for people who are not considered white, to go into the town in the morning and work a nine to five job. But then as soon as it was five o’clock, then those same employees had about an hour to leave the town, or else they could suffer some severe repercussions,” Lehman said.
“There would be people in town who were residents of the town who would harass, at best, any people of color who were still in the town when they weren’t supposed to be. And at worst, there’ll be violence, perhaps even death.”
Sundown towns were prevalent in the Midwest. Some towns, like Manitowoc Wisconsin, put up signs warning Black people: “N*gger, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You In Our Town.” Such towns would even market their all-white population as a selling point to new potential residents.
A nationwide directory of sundown towns based on the research of sociologist James Loewen lists Edina, Mankato and South St. Paul, among 18 other towns in Minnesota, that practiced this forcible exclusion of Black residents and groups.
Fletcher defended his comment to the Pioneer Press by saying he was referring to Western movies where sheriffs told criminals to “get out of town.” He said the bad guys in these movies were often white, and that his comment had “no racial connotations.”
Regardless of Fletcher’s intent, Lehman says the comment references a history of racial oppression. Black residents driven out of sundown towns by whites lost their homes and would face barriers to finding new jobs and schools for their children.
“It would be great if he would take the opportunity that this controversy has provided for him to very publicly inform himself … and then holding a press conference and telling the taxpayers what he’s learned about sundown towns, what he’s learned about the history of law enforcement in this country and in this state, and how telling people to “get out of town” is very much something that is wrapped in discrimination in oppression by skin color,” Lehman said.
Sundown towns were outlawed just 53 years ago when the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was passed, but the effects of de facto segregation still linger in some places.
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