Racial segregation

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The Rex Theatre for Colored People, Leland, Mississippi, June 1937

Racial segregation is the separation, either by law or by action, of people of different races in all manner of daily activities, such as education, housing, and the use of public facilities. Thus, it is a form of institutional racism. Racial segregation laws have existed in many countries, notably the United States, Nazi Germany, and South Africa during the Apartheid era. While no longer considered acceptable in most countries, racial segregation still exists in many communities through the individual actions of their members. Nevertheless, as the world advances toward the understanding that all people belong to one human family, such practices have become less prevalent, and an increasing number of communities have broken down the barriers dividing the races.


Racial segregation is characterized by separation of people of different races in daily life when both are doing equal tasks, such as eating in a restaurant, drinking from a water fountain, using a restroom, attending school, going to the movies, or in the rental or purchase of a home. Segregation may be de jure (Latin, meaning "by law")—mandated by law—or de facto (also Latin, meaning "in fact"); de facto segregation may even exist illegally. De facto segregation can occur when members of different races strongly prefer to associate and do business with members of their own race, though a segregationist regime may be maintained by means ranging from racial discrimination in hiring and in the rental and sale of housing, to vigilante violence such as lynchings.

South Africa in the apartheid era and the United States—both during the slavery era (through 1865) and after the 1876 end of the Reconstruction that followed the American Civil War—passed laws requiring or permitting separation of the races in daily life. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld, in Plessy v. Ferguson the right of U.S. states and localities to mandate racial segregation. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the segregation of the federal Civil Service.[1] In 1948, President Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the U.S. military; in 1954, the Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, largely reversed Plessy; over the next eleven years, a succession of further court decisions and federal laws would completely invalidate de jure racial segregation and discrimination in the U.S., although de facto segregation and discrimination have proven more resilient.

De jure segregation in both South Africa and the U.S. came with "miscegenation laws" (prohibitions against interracial marriage) and laws against hiring people of the race that is the object of discrimination in any but menial positions. Segregation in hiring practices contributed to economic imbalances between the races. Segregation, however, often allowed close contact in hierarchical situations, such as allowing a person of one race to work as a servant for a member of another race. Segregation can involve spatial separation of the races, and/or mandatory use of different institutions, such as schools and hospitals by people of different races.


Even though many societies throughout history have practiced racial segregation, it was by no means universal, and some multiracial societies, such as the Roman Empire, were notable for their rejection of such practices. Most modern societies do not officially practice racial segregation, and officially frown upon racial discrimination. However, anxieties about racial, religious, and cultural differences still find expression in other forms of political and social controversy, either as an official pretext for culturally accepted discrimination, or as a socially acceptable way to discuss cultural, religious, and economic friction that results from racial discrimination. For example, immigration and religious controversies often mask concerns about the culture or racial composition of the immigrants. Issues of race relations also appear in seemingly race-neutral disputes, over such issues as poverty, healthcare, taxation, religion, enforcement of a particular set of cultural norms, and even fashion.

Racial segregation differs from racial discrimination in a number of ways. Discrimination ranges from individual actions, to socially enforced discriminatory behavior, to legally mandated differences in status between members of different races. Segregation has, typically, harshly reinforced discrimination: If people of different races live in separate neighborhoods, attend different schools, receive different social services, etc., then people of the favored races can be largely insulated from societal neglect of people of other races.

Racial segregation in different countries

Throughout recorded time, human societies have created divides along racial lines. Laws limiting the rights to property, marriage, and freedom of those of different races can be found in the history books of practically every culture. These laws have carried many names, such as Jim Crow Laws, Nuremberg Laws, and Apartheid, to name a few. Though many of the offenders have removed such laws or at least do not enforce them, many countries have remained segregated.

United States

Sign for "Colored waiting room," Georgia, 1943

After the Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery in the Southern United States, racial discrimination became regulated by the so-called Jim Crow laws, which mandated strict segregation of the races. Though such laws were instituted shortly after fighting ended in many cases, they only became formalized after the end of Republican-enforced Reconstruction in the 1870s and 1880s, during a period known as the "nadir of American race relations." This legalized segregation lasted up to the 1960s, primarily through the deep and extensive power of the southern Democratic Party.

While the majority, in 1896, Plessy vs. Ferguson overtly upheld only "separate but equal" facilities (specifically, transportation facilities), Justice John Marshall Harlan in his dissenting opinion protested that the decision was an expression of "white supremacy;" he predicted that segregation would "stimulate aggressions … upon the admitted rights of colored citizens," "arouse race hate" and "perpetuate a feeling of distrust between [the] races."[2]

In the post-Civil War South, Democrats used the race issue to solidify their hold on Southern politics, playing on white resentment of black political power. Democrats were the agents in passing segregation laws, as well as laws disenfranchising blacks (and sometimes poor whites) politically. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the segregation of the federal Civil Service. White and black people would sometimes be required to eat separately and use separate schools, public toilets, park benches, train and restaurant seating, etc. In some locales, in addition to segregated seating, it could be forbidden for stores or restaurants to serve different races under the same roof.

Segregation was also pervasive in housing. State constitutions (for example, that of California) had clauses giving local jurisdictions the right to regulate where members of certain races could live. White landowners often included restrictive covenants in deeds through which they prevented blacks or Asians from ever purchasing their property from any subsequent owner. In the 1948 case of Shelley v. Kraemer, the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled that such covenants were unenforceable in a court of law. However, residential segregation patterns had already become established in most American cities, and have often persisted up to the present.

With the migration up north of many black workers at the turn of the twentieth century, and the friction that occurred with white and black workers during this time, segregation was and continues to be a phenomenon in northern cities as well as in the south. Whites generally allocate tenements as housing for poor blacks.[3]

"Miscegenation" laws prohibited people of different races from marrying. As one of many examples of such state laws, Utah's marriage law had an anti-miscegenation component that was passed in 1899 and repealed in 1963. It prohibited marriage between a white and anyone considered a Negro, mulatto (half Negro), quadroon (one-quarter Negro), octoroon (one-eighth Negro), Mongolian, or member of the Malay race (presumably a Polynesian or Melanesian). No restrictions were placed on marriages between people that were not "white persons" (Utah Code, 40-1-2, C. L. 17, §2967 as amended by L. 39, C. 50; L. 41, Ch. 35).

In World War I, blacks served in the United States Armed Forces in segregated units. Black soldiers were often poorly trained and equipped. The 369th Infantry, however, (formerly 15th New York National Guard) Regiment distinguished themselves, and were known as the "Harlem Hellfighters."[4]

World War II saw the first black military pilots in the U.S., the Tuskegee Airmen, 99th Fighter Squadron,[5] and also saw the segregated 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion participate in the liberation of Jewish survivors at Buchenwald.[6]

During World War II, people of Japanese, Italian, and German descent (whether citizens or not) were placed in internment camps, on the basis of their race. However, the German Americans were not sent to internment camps to the same extent as the Japanese.

Pressure to end racial segregation in the government grew among African Americans and progressives after the end of World War II. On January 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, ending segregation in the United States Armed Forces.

Institutionalized racial segregation was ended as an official practice by the efforts of such American Civil Rights Movement activists as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., working during the period from the end of World War II through the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, supported by President Lyndon Johnson. Many of their efforts were acts of civil disobedience aimed at violating the racial segregation rules and laws, such as refusing to give up a seat in the black part of the bus to a white person (Rosa Parks), or holding sit-ins at all-white diners.

Not all racial segregation laws have been repealed in the United States, although Supreme Court rulings have rendered them unenforceable. For instance, the Alabama Constitution still mandates that "Separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race."[7] A proposal to repeal this provision was narrowly defeated in 2004. However, in a different arena, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in February 2005, in Johnson v. California (125 S. Ct. 1141) that the California Department of Corrections' unwritten practice of racially segregating prisoners in its prison reception centers—which California claimed was for inmate safety (gangs in California, as throughout the U.S., usually organize on racial lines)—is to be subject to strict scrutiny, the highest level of constitutional review. Although the high court remanded the case back to the lower courts, it is likely that their decision will have the impact of forcing California to alter its practice of segregating by race in its reception centers.

A law need not stipulate de jure segregation in order to have the effect of de facto segregation. For example, the "eagle feather law,"[8] which governs the possession and religious use of eagle feathers, was officially written to protect then dwindling eagle populations while still protecting traditional Native American spiritual and religious customs, of which the use of eagles are central. The eagle feather law later met charges of promoting racial segregation due to the law’s provision authorizing the possession of eagle feathers to members of only one ethnic group, Native Americans, and forbidding Native Americans from including non-Native Americans in indigenous customs involving eagle feathers—a common modern practice dating back to the early 1500s.

Despite all of the legal changes of the latter half of the twentieth century, however, the United States remained a segregated society, with housing patterns, school enrollment, church membership, employment opportunities, and even college admissions all reflecting significant de facto segregation. Supporters of affirmative action argue that the persistence of such disparities reflects either racial discrimination or the persistence of its effects.

Educational segregation in the United States

In the Brown v. Board decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for a unanimous court, said that

…in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal… To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.

The decision implied that the justices were influenced in part by studies by Kenneth B. Clark showing that segregated education had a negative psychological effect upon black school children. Clark's work included his "doll study," in which black students in segregated schools were shown both black and white dolls and asked which one they liked better. A majority of black students preferred the white doll, which was believed by Clark to demonstrate lowered black self-esteem as a result of segregation.

According to the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, the actual desegregation of U.S. public schools peaked in 1988; since that time the schools have, in fact, become more segregated. As of 2005, the present proportion of Black students at majority white schools "a level lower than in any year since 1968."[9]

Nazi Germany

An example of miscegenation laws were the Nuremberg Laws enacted by the Nazis in Germany against the large German Jewish community during the 1930s. The laws prohibited marriages between Jews (deemed as Untermenschen—"sub-humans") and German "Aryans" (deemed the Herrenrasse—"master race"). Many interfaith and intermarried couples committed suicide when these laws came into effect.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Jews in Nazi-controlled states were forced to wear yellow ribbons or Star of David, and were, along with Romas (Gypsies) discriminated against by the racial laws. Jewish doctors and professors were not allowed to treat Aryan (effectively, gentile) patients or teach Aryan pupils, respectively. The Jews were also not allowed to use any public transportation, besides the ferry, and would only be able to shop from 3-5 in Jewish stores. After Kristallnacht ("The Night of Broken Glass"), the Jews were fined 1,000,000 German marks for damages done by the Nazi troops and SS members.

South Africa

"Petty apartheid": Sign on Durban beach in English, Afrikaans and Zulu

Apartheid was a system which existed in South Africa for over forty years, although the term itself had a history going back to the 1910s. It was formalized in the years following the victory of the National Party in the all-white national election of 1948, increased in dominance under the rule of Prime Minister Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd and remained law until 1990. Examples of apartheid policy introduced are the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1951, which made it illegal for marriage between races. Apartheid was abolished following a rapid change in public perception of racial segregation throughout the world, and an economic boycott against South Africa which had crippled and threatened to destroy its economy.


The British colony of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), under Ian Smith, leader of the white minority government, declared unilateral independence in 1965. For the next 15 years, Rhodesia operated under white minority rule, until international sanctions forced Smith to hold multiracial elections, after a brief period of British rule in 1979.

Laws enforcing segregation had been around before 1965, although many institutions simply ignored them. One highly publicized legal battle occurred in 1960, involving the opening of a new theater that was to be open to all races. This incident was nicknamed "The Battle of the Toilets."


From Australian federation up to the 1970s, what became known as the "White Australia Policy" officially discriminated against those who were not white and prevented them from immigrating to Australia, by deliberately making their immigration tests too hard to pass. The various government laws and acts that made up the Policy were amended or replaced over a course of twenty or so years, from the mid-fifties to the mid-seventies.

In the past, it was policy for Aborigines to be taken to live on missions, the intention being for them to be "out of the way" for the expanding territory of the white settlers. In the early-to-mid twentieth century the official policy regarding half-Aboriginal children was one of "assimilation:" They would be brought up on the missions to become part of white society and made to marry only white people, the intention being to "breed out" the Aboriginal traits by the third generation or so. Around the 1960s, the official policy regarding all indigenous Australians was changed to one of "integration:" Being able to live either in Western society, on missions or in traditional society.

Despite the official stance being integration, a large percentage of indigenous Australians continued to live away from the urban areas in comparatively poor socio-economic conditions, leaving them somewhat segregated from the rest of Australian society. A number of commentators and civil rights groups have characterized the situation as "apartheid."[10] In fact, Australia's government policies are viewed by some as the original impetus for the apartheid system in South Africa.[11]


Malaysia has an article in its constitution which distinctly segregates the Malays and other indigenous peoples of Malaysia from the non-Malays, or bumiputra, under the social contract giving them special rights and privileges. This includes government-sponsored discounts and requiring even the private sector of the economy to preferentially treat bumiputra with economic privileges, and penalizing companies who do not have a certain quota of bumiputra in their employment. Furthermore, any discussion of abolishing the article is prohibited with the justification that it is seditious. This form of state-sponsored racial segregation has been likened to South African apartheid. Supporters of the policy maintain that this is affirmative action for the bumiputra who had suffered during the colonial era of the history of Malaysia, using the concept of the Ketuanan Melayu that Malaysia belongs to the Malays.


Racial segregation has been practiced in many civilizations throughout human history. Human beings have a desire to name and classify. Perhaps this is done in an attempt to better understand the world better, as in the natural world of physical objects and living creatures. However, in the social world of relationships among different people, such classifications are more likely to lead to stereotyping and discriminatory, controlling, or even violent behavior toward those classified as different from oneself.

In this era of increasingly globalized society, humanity can now recognize the error of its ways and strive to break down the walls people have built between one another. Removing all such barriers and cultivating understanding among different races is a major step to becoming one global community.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  1. W.E.B. Du Bois, Another Open Letter to Woodrow Wilson, Teaching American History. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  2. The Nation, Brown at 50. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  3. Skidmore, History of Residential Segregation. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  4. Glenn Watkins, James Reese Europe and The Harlem Hellfighters Band. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  5. Keith Weldon Medley, On Clipped Wings: As America's first black military pilots, Tuskegee airmen faced a battle against racism, Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  6. Asa R. Gordon, William A. Scott, III and the Holocaust: The Encounter of African American Liberators and Jewish Survivors at Buchenwald. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  7. Alabama State Legislature, SECTION 256. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  8. www.geocities.com, Religious Freedom with Raptors. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  9. The Nation, Overcoming Apartheid. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  10. UNSW Press, Disability in Australia: Exposing a social apartheid. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
  11. www.hartford-hwp.com, World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Retrieved May 9, 2008.


  • Dobratz, Betty A. and Stephanie L. Shanks-Meile. 2001. White Power, White Pride!: The White Separatist Movement in the United States. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Stokes, DaShanne. "Legalized Segregation and the Denial of Religious Freedom." In Religious Freedom with Raptors. Retrieved May 9, 2008.


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