Racial segregation in the United States

Racial segregation in the United States, as a general term, includes the segregation or separation of access to facilities, services, and opportunities such as housing, medical care, education, employment, and transportation along racial lines. The expression most often refers to the legally or socially enforced separation of African Americans from other races, but also applies to the general discrimination against people of color by white communities. [1]

A sign reading "We Cater to White Trade Only
"We Cater to White Trade Only" sign on a restaurant window in Lancaster, Ohio in 1938.

The term refers to the physical separation and provision of so-called " separate but equal" facilities, which were separate but rarely equal, [2] as well as to other manifestations of racial discrimination, such as separation of roles within an institution: for example, in the United States Armed Forces before the 1950s, black units were typically separated from white units but were led by white officers. [3] Signs were used to show non-whites where they could legally walk, talk, drink, rest, or eat. [4] Segregated facilities extended from white only schools to white only graveyards. [5]

Legal segregation of schools was stopped in the U.S. by federal enforcement of a series of Supreme Court decisions after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. All legally enforced public segregation (segregation de jure) was abolished by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. [6] It passed after demonstrations during the Civil Rights Movement resulted in public opinion turning against legally-enforced segregation.

De facto segregation—segregation "in fact", without sanction of law—persists in varying degrees to the present day. The contemporary racial segregation seen in the United States in residential neighborhoods has been shaped by public policies, mortgage discrimination, and redlining, among other factors. [7] De facto segregation results from the geographical grouping of racial groups either as a result of economic factors or choice ( white flight). Most often, this occurs in cities where the residents of the inner city are African Americans and the suburbs surrounding this inner core are often European American residents. [8] Douglas Massey and Nancy A. Denton proposed the term hypersegregation in their 1989 study of "American Apartheid", when whites created black ghettos during the first half of the 20th century in order to isolate growing urban black populations. [9]


An African-American man drinking at a "colored" drinking fountain in a streetcar terminal in Oklahoma City, 1939. [10]

Reconstruction in the South

Congress passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867, the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1870 providing the right to vote, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 forbidding racial segregation in accommodations. As a result, Federal occupation troops in the South assured blacks the right to vote and to elect their own political leaders. The Reconstruction amendments asserted the supremacy of the national state and the formal equality under the law of everyone within it. However, it did not prohibit segregation in schools. [11]

When the Republicans came to power in the Southern states after 1867, they created the first system of taxpayer-funded public schools. Southern Blacks wanted public schools for their children but they did not demand racially integrated schools. Almost all the new public schools were segregated, apart from a few in New Orleans. After the Republicans lost power in the mid-1870s, conservative whites retained the public school systems but sharply cut their funding. [12]

Almost all private academies and colleges in the South were strictly segregated by race. [13] The American Missionary Association supported the development and establishment of several historically black colleges, such as Fisk University and Shaw University. In this period, a handful of northern colleges accepted black students. Northern denominations and their missionary associations especially established private schools across the South to provide secondary education. They provided a small amount of collegiate work. Tuition was minimal, so churches supported the colleges financially, and also subsidized the pay of some teachers. In 1900 churches—mostly based in the North—operated 247 schools for blacks across the South, with a budget of about $1 million. They employed 1600 teachers and taught 46,000 students. [14] [15] Prominent schools included Howard University, a federal institution based in Washington; Fisk University in Nashville, Atlanta University, Hampton Institute in Virginia, and many others. Most new colleges in the 19th century were founded in northern states.

By the early 1870s, the North lost interest in further reconstruction efforts and when federal troops were withdrawn in 1877, the Republican Party in the South splintered and lost support, leading to the conservatives (calling themselves "Redeemers") taking control of all the southern states. 'Jim Crow' segregation began somewhat later, in the 1880s. [16] Disfranchisement of the blacks began in the 1890s. Although the Republican Party had championed African-American rights during the Civil War and had become a platform for black political influence during Reconstruction, a backlash among white Republicans led to the rise of the lily-white movement to remove African Americans from leadership positions in the party and incite riots to divide the party, with the ultimate goal of eliminating black influence. [17] By 1910, segregation was firmly established across the South and most of the border region, and only a small number of black leaders were allowed to vote across the Deep South. [18]:117

Jim Crow era

A black man goes into the "colored" entrance of a movie theater in Belzoni, Mississippi, 1939. [19]

The legitimacy of laws requiring segregation of blacks was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537. The Supreme Court sustained the constitutionality of a Louisiana statute that required railroad companies to provide "separate but equal" accommodations for white and black passengers, and prohibited whites and blacks from using railroad cars that were not assigned to their race. [20]

Plessy thus allowed segregation, which became standard throughout the southern United States, and represented the institutionalization of the Jim Crow period. Everyone was supposed to receive the same public services (schools, hospitals, prisons, etc.), but with separate facilities for each race. In practice, the services and facilities reserved for African-Americans were almost always of lower quality than those reserved for whites; for example, most African-American schools received less public funding per student than nearby white schools. Segregation was never mandated by law in the Northern states, but a de facto system grew for schools, in which nearly all black students attended schools that were nearly all-black. In the South, white schools had only white pupils and teachers, while black schools had only black teachers and black students.[ citation needed]

Some streetcar companies did not segregate voluntarily. It took 15 years for the government to break down their resistance. [21]

On at least six occasions over nearly 60 years, the Supreme Court held, either explicitly or by necessary implication, that the "separate but equal" rule announced in Plessy was the correct rule of law, [22] although, toward the end of that period, the Court began to focus on whether the separate facilities were in fact equal.

The repeal of "separate but equal" laws was a major focus of the Civil Rights Movement. In Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), the Supreme Court outlawed segregated public education facilities for blacks and whites at the state level. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended all state and local laws requiring segregation.

New Deal era

The New Deal of the 1930s was racially segregated; blacks and whites rarely worked alongside each other in New Deal programs. The largest relief program by far was the Works Progress Administration (WPA); it operated segregated units, as did its youth affiliate, the National Youth Administration (NYA). [23] Blacks were hired by the WPA as supervisors in the North; however of 10,000 WPA supervisors in the South, only 11 were black. [24] Historian Anthony Badger argues, "New Deal programs in the South routinely discriminated against blacks and perpetuated segregation. [25] In its first few weeks of operation, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps in the North were integrated. By July 1935, however, practically all the CCC camps in the United States were segregated, and blacks were strictly limited in the supervisory roles they were assigned. [26] Philip Klinkner and Rogers Smith argue that "even the most prominent racial liberals in the New Deal did not dare to criticize Jim Crow." [27] Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes was one of the Roosevelt Administration's most prominent supporters of blacks and former president of the Chicago chapter of the NAACP. In 1937 when Senator Josiah Bailey Democrat of North Carolina accused him of trying to break down segregation laws, Ickes wrote him to deny that:

I think it is up to the states to work out their social problems if possible, and while I have always been interested in seeing that the Negro has a square deal, I have never dissipated my strength against the particular stone wall of segregation. I believe that wall will crumble when the Negro has brought himself to a high educational and economic status…. Moreover, while there are no segregation laws in the North, there is segregation in fact and we might as well recognize this. [28] [29]

The New Deal's record came under attack by New Left historians in the 1960s for its pusillanimity in not attacking capitalism more vigorously, nor helping blacks achieve equality. The critics emphasize the absence of a philosophy of reform to explain the failure of New Dealers to attack fundamental social problems. They demonstrate the New Deal's commitment to save capitalism and its refusal to strip away private property. They detect a remoteness from the people and indifference to participatory democracy, and call instead for more emphasis on conflict and exploitation. [30] [31]