Letitia VanSant

Letitia VanSant

Singer-songwriter based in Baltimore, MD.

revisiting "sundown Town" in 2017

I originally wrote this song and blog post in 2015 after the uprising in Baltimore. I am posting it again as I prepare to release the song as part of my album. Because I don't think that it's right for me to profit off of a song about white supremacy, I will be donating any money I make from the song to local Black-led organizing.

One of the ways that racism has shown up in my own community, as a white woman growing up in and around Baltimore, is the perception of Black neighborhoods and Black people as "dangerous." I think that police violence against people of color is in some ways an extension of this fear.  And more than that, it keeps us from seeing our fates as bound together, pursuing more "security" for our own neighborhoods through policing, rather than seeking the bigger, longer-term solutions that could lift everyone up.


Come to a full and complete stop at every stop sign. Follow the speed limit exactly.  If it says “No turn on red,” just don’t do it, even if there aren’t any cars on the street.  Never put anything on the dashboard.  If your taillight is broken, take the bus--don’t risk it.

These are the rules that my co-worker Paul, a Black man from Detroit, had learned the hard way--by getting stopped by police, being illegally arrested, and even doing community service for crimes that he never committed. These brief periods in jail had severely disrupted his life, and so he did everything he could to avoid any encounters with the cops in his heavily-policed neighborhood.

In my decade and change of driving while white, I’ve learned that for the most part, I can roll through most stop signs at a slow speed. When it comes to speed limits, I’ve heard the rule “nine you’re fine, ten you’re mine” -- meaning the cops won’t stop me if I go nine miles per hour over. I never even developed a cognizance about broken tail lights or dashboard rules. Most of the time there was no one watching, and even if there was, I was almost never stopped.

Learning about my privilege has been a process of discovering ways that life has been easier for me because I was born to white, educated parents. It’s as though I’ve been running a race my whole life, and for a while it was convenient to believe that any gains I’d made were due to my talent and effort. But I continue to learn about the myriad ways that the race has been rigged in my favor, I was given unfair advantages, and many were held back at the starting line.*

One of these advantages is that I've been able to spend most of my time in places where I feel safe, or at least I've had the option to do so.  If I needed to, I could call the police with a reasonable expectation that they would help me. Wanting to keep ourselves and our families safe is a basic human instinct, entirely natural and right and good.  And yet this instinct can also cause us to perpetrate, or to tolerate, unnecessary harm to other people. It can physically and emotionally distance us, furthering our lack of understanding and concern about the lives of people who come from different backgrounds.

So much of the violence that we see in Baltimore is a result of structural inequality. We keep responding to these problems with police and with prisons, which in turn make it even more difficult for people to escape the cycles of poverty.  There are many reasons for this, but I think one factor is fear: when people are afraid, it's hard for people in positions of power to justify shifting resources away from police and prisons--when really what we need to do is to direct money towards building a more secure future for everyone in the long term.  I wrote this song as a reflection on the sadness of letting an un-interrogated fear define our choices as a society.


I spent the fall of 2008 canvassing for the Obama campaign in Detroit. I was one of about 6 or 7 white people on a team of about 80, most of whom were Black.

For the first few weeks I was partnered with the aforementioned guy named Paul, who weighed nearly 300 pounds. Some members of our team speculated that I was paired with him because as a white woman I would be more at risk in Black neighborhoods and Paul would be my “protector.”** A Detroit native and a very sweet guy, he seemed to enjoy showing folks around his hometown and telling stories from his childhood.  

Most of the time we’d pick a few blocks to cover and then split off on opposite sites of the street to knock doors. While I was usually received pretty warmly, I noticed that people were often suspicious of him until he somehow demonstrated that he wasn’t a threat. Sometimes people wouldn’t answer their doors even though they were clearly at home, and once someone even opened the door with a shotgun in hand, instructing him to get off of his property.  I would return to the campaign office with relatively high numbers of voter contacts and was praised for my work, but we would joke that I ought to have been graded on a special curve for white people. (Unfortunately, although we unknowingly experience such advantages all the time in life, there is no special curve for white people. We just go on thinking that we're naturally fabulous at everything).

One day we were asked to canvas a white suburb outside the city limits with another team member, a Black man in his 60s. As dusk fell and we got ready to go home, we had some trouble locating our companion. When we finally found him after about 20 minutes of searching, he was visibly shaken--terrified, even. He told us that when he was growing up, it was well known that Black people were not allowed after dark in that suburb.  

That was the first time I ever heard of a sundown town, which historian James Louwen defines as "towns that were all white on purpose." In some places there would be signs on the outskirts saying things like “N*gger, don’t let the sun go down on you in our town” with the implied threat of physical violence. But more often there was no sign and you would just have to know, so Black families would make it their business to understand where they were and weren’t welcome.  I used to think that after the Jim Crow era this kind of overt racism would have only surfaced in a few rural towns--but Louwen makes the case that it was very widespread, perhaps even more the rule than the exception, and included many (possibly even most) upper class suburbs of large cities.

This incident was the first time it ever occurred to me that a Black man would be so afraid in a quiet suburban neighborhood typifying what I had been taught was “safe.”  What was even more absurd was that people on our team had been so concerned for my safety as a white woman, when there was so much more evidence to show that the Black men on our team faced far more credible threats of physical violence from citizens and police alike.

This is what it took for me to start to notice how many people of color have to grapple daily with the notion that their very presence might make a white person feel scared, whether it’s getting into an elevator, walking into a store, or even just walking down the street in broad daylight. Sometimes I was chagrinned to find that I was the one on the other side of it, feeling myself tense as I passed someone on the sidewalk. The fact that people are afraid of them puts people of color at risk - as the tragic death of Trayvon Martin and so many others goes to show. Because our society teaches us that criminals look like them, it’s like they are assumed guilty until they prove themselves innocent. And this is just one strand in the complicated web of discrimination and oppression that so many have to navigate every single day.


I grew up in and around Baltimore, another American city that once thrived on a robust industrial economy but was hit hard when companies shipped jobs overseas, leaving thousands unemployed and striving to make themselves relevant in an economy that had abandoned them. I spent my childhood mostly unaffected by the consequences of this shift in the leafy, upper-middle class neighborhoods and suburbs of Roland Park, Lutherville, and Towson. Since returning to the city after college I’ve lived in Waverly, Hamilton, and Seton Hill.

While it seems that the term “sundown town” most often refers to rural areas or suburbs, Baltimore had its own ways of keeping Black people out of white neighborhoods, and keeping Black people from accumulating the wealth that comes with real estate. Baltimore literally created the blueprint of racist housing laws and practices that shaped many of America’s large cities, as is well documented by Anthony Pietila in Not in My Backyard: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City, as well as Dr. Lawrence Brown of the Baltimore Redevelopment Action Coalition. Decades after housing discrimination was made illegal, though, we still live in relatively segregated neighborhoods--in part because of these racialized notions of safety.


The infamous redlining map or "residential security map" that helped to solidify Baltimore's apartheid system in 1937. Posted by Baltimore Redevelopment Action Coalition for Empowerment.

Societal notions of safety have been a defining factor in my experience of Baltimore.  Most people I know carry with them a mental map of what neighborhoods they will or won’t ride their bike through, where they might ask a friend to walk them to their cars, etc. When I had a job working with a number of schools in low-income neighborhoods, co-workers of mine would tell me to “be careful,” or to “trust your instincts.”  Once or twice every year, a friend of a friend who is moving to Baltimore for graduate school will ask me what neighborhoods are safe. Safe for whom?

Safety is subjective. Everyone’s mental map is different, and people’s real lived experiences of each neighborhood can be extremely varied depending on who they are. I don't want to mislead anyone into thinking that this is strictly racial; for instance there are many people of color who avoid certain neighborhoods because they're too dangerous.

Growing up in the suburbs I knew people who seldom went in to the city except for Orioles’ games, and I have friends who wouldn’t come to shows in Station North (Greenmount West) because they didn’t feel safe to go there. In high school when I volunteered at the Sandtown-Winchester Habitat for Humanity, a few of my friends’ parents wouldn’t let them come along. I've heard Hopkins undergraduate students jokingly use the phrase "stay inside the bubble," meaning that friends should stay in the areas that are patrolled by Hopkins security guards.  These cautions still strike me as overly fearful, but then again who I am I to judge? I still have my own mental map, it's just that the lines are drawn differently. And it's easy for me to say, as a person from a privileged background without kids, without much to lose. People do commit violent crimes and it’s entirely natural to want to avoid those risks.

But where does this fear really come from? Certainly, there are some objective measures of crime rates, but are our snap judgments based in reality? How much of it is rooted in media-based stereotypes, or on over-representation of Black people as perpetrators of crime?  How many of our crime statistics are a self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuated by biased policing?** If we rarely venture outside of our socio-economic and geographic circles, how could these notions ever really be proven wrong?

Whether this fear of falling victim to violent crime is legitimate or not in any particular circumstance, it profoundly divides us as a city. It is one of the dynamics that allows us to tolerate abominable infractions on the human rights of our neighbors. When people are called “thugs” it seems to imply that they are irredeemable, that one must resort to brute force and imprisonment because they will respond to nothing else.

When the outrage of Freddie Gray’s death boiled over into an uprising, I and many people I know were saying the words “stay safe” to our loved ones. But as Mahroh Jangiri articulated far better than I can, this mistakenly implies that the real threat was to people from privileged backgrounds in the first place. For many, there is no way to “stay safe” by just steering clear of the riots; many have to cope with threats on their person every day of their lives.   We hardly heard about the killing of 109 people by Maryland police over the past three years, about 70% of whom were Black, until some smashed windows grabbed the attention of the national media.

What course of events could have more aptly demonstrated that none of us are safe until all of us are safe? How can I be part of the fight for justice if I demand safety as a prerequisite for my participation?****  


A man is pepper sprayed by police on May 2nd for curfew violation, around 10:10 PM. (I've been unable to find his name). Source.


A selfie I took the same night during the curfew, May 3rd at 1 AM. Rev Heber Brown was asking white people to do this in order to demonstrate the unequal enforcement.

While it has been heartbreaking to hear of more and more incidences of police brutality, and the pursuit of justice remains a long game, there have been so many more frank conversations about race and class in my own circles. I've noticed a broader intention to recognize, listen to, and support the leadership of Black communities.  I was heartened to march alongside people from all walks of life at protest after protest. I ran into people who have never been politically engaged before, people I played softball with in elementary school. Baltimore is fortunate to have talented organizers. The national media came to Baltimore and tried to tell us that our youth are thugs, and the Black leaders of Baltimore grabbed the mic and said “No, we are telling our story.”

At the same time, I’m concerned that the same people who had warned me against living in the city will shake their heads and say “I told you so.” I worry that the riots will serve to further entrench some people in fear--moving to a gated community with a security guard, or otherwise distancing themselves from the notion that there is no true peace, no true security, until there is justice for all.

I am not saying that anyone should intentionally put themselves in situations that they regard to be dangerous, nor am I saying that white people should flock to Sandtown, nor am I saying that integrated housing would solve all of our problems. Bringing white people physically closer to Black people or vice versa not address the power dynamics that are at the root of injustice. I am saying, though, that one important step is for white people like me to become more aware of the ways we have been taught to fear Black people, and how this fear can be a mechanism of oppression. I have a lot to learn, and I definitely don't claim to be a good example as an activist on this issue. But until we notice and change the dynamics that have governed our history, we’re doomed to repeat the past.

“The fact that Americans, white Americans, have not yet been able to do this- to face their history, to change their lives-hideously menaces this country. Indeed, it menaces the entire world.”

— James Baldwin, "The White Man's Guilt," Ebony, 1965


*There are many more advantages I could list -- going to good public schools, having parents who are supportive and encouraging, and so on. The analogy that I name here still leaves a lot out of the picture. In fact, it’s like the original rules of our economy were for Black people to carry white people down the racetrack without any compensation.  And it doesn't need to be a competition, anyway, but that's the way a lot of our society as set up.

** Even this incidence reflects the historical fallacy that white women must be protected from black men. In decades past, black men were lynched for even just looking at a white woman.

***On the day that the riots began, the police received a "credible threat" that gangs were forming an alliance to take out police officers--an accusation that gang members went to great lengths to refute.  At the same time the "purge" graphic was supposedly circulating among teens, and was widely re-tweeted by reporters and others, but I have yet to see journalistic confirmation that it actually was being spread by kids that intended to participate. While police were obviously thought it better to prepare for a possible threat rather than wait and see, I wonder how much of the way things played out at Mondawmin was elevated by the media frenzy around it, whether the fact that these rumors reflected our pre-existing fears made us quicker to believe them.  How would the response have been different if the purge graphic were being circulated in a predominantly white school? Would we have seen police in riot gear?

****In years past I was afraid to talk about race at all, because I was afraid that I would say something wrong and that I would be criticized for it.  I somehow wanted to be sure that whatever I said was the "right thing." I now recognize that this was an example of white fragility -- wanting to be guaranteed that my identity as a “good person” would remain intact before I engaged in the conversation about racial justice. As a white person I have a responsibility to learn and to talk about white supremacy, not to leave the burden to people of color. I will inevitably make mistakes, and hopefully I will learn from them.