Racial segregation remains one of the most fundamentally perplexing questions within the body of American history. Many people erroneously believe that the racial and social structures that existed prior to the close of the civil war in 1865 resulted in both fundamental and rapid changes for those who had been subjugated by slavery, immigration and even war. The truth is far more complicated and changes were much more gradual. The reality of segregation was both social, legal and economic and to some degree still exists today, in a de jure manner. “Although de jure segregation in the United States is most commonly associated with the South, segregation could be found at one time or another in every section of the country.” (Finkelman, 2003) (“South, The ” Columbia Encyclopedia, 2000) Though the fundamental struggle of the civil rights movements has largely forced the eradication of de facto, or legal segregation de jure, or mostly social traditional segregation is still evident.
To gain a more complete understanding of the facts of the history of racial segregation one must understand the fundamentals of de facto, or legal establishments of segregation. The development of civil and constitutional law is one that progresses through stages of social tolerance and social change. Like any other institution based on societal norms and conditions as well as on individual decision-making, it is fallible and fluid. Each social stratification class, gender or race has traveled through the analogs of the opinions of the judges based on a system of civil law established in Europe centuries ago. Law in general is not simply dictated by social issues. Law is also an effecter of them. Yet setting law aside for a moment, it can be argued that social change seems to be significantly behind the changes of the laws that govern society.
In the first half of the twentieth century, many major obstacles faced races of what centuries of popular history informed the American population were not pure races. (Allport 84-85) The determining source of much of this fear and ignorance was and to some degree still is based on the ideas of a simple fear of the unknown or different. Through continued segregation the ‘other’ can still be seen as inferior as few opportunities were offered for people to have candid exposure to anything other than the dominant culture. (Bell 207)
The law had created two worlds, so separate that communication between them was almost impossible. Separation bred suspicion and hatred, fostered rumors and misunderstandings, and created conditions that made extremely difficult any steps toward its reduction.” (Bell 207) Through the development of not only normative-based media but also financial and political control the dominant culture retains the right to represent and view the ‘other’ in any way they see fit.
Often times reformers and politicians with hard born ideas of the greater good, much the same as those ideas of manifest destiny expressed by imperialist settlers to the American Continent felt as they wavered between salvation and protection as the source of the ultimate alienation and segregation of the Native American peoples. (Nash and Weiss 59-60) One very important lesson of this darker point of American history is associated with the fact that legal, social and political changes occur slowly through time and often trouble. Questions of racial dominance remained and evolved through the legal system not so much in a timeline of progress but more clearly through a one step forward two step back demonstrative process. In the legal arena the ideas associated with race and social change did not progressively move in the direction of cultural fairness but rather sputtered and stalled often with an eventual goal of social equality that even today has yet to be reached.
In the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson the establishment of a legal precedence for the inclusion of racial segregation in public train cars began an already spirited legal climb toward a group of laws defining segregation that would later be known as Jim Crow Laws, named for a black face vaudevillian actor who was a popular racial stereotype in the late 1800s. With this initial establishment of legally enforceable segregation laws the country was swept with laws governing everything from public schools to movie theaters and cafes.
The mandates themselves cause a shock wave of renewed fear and hatred among both the dominant and minority races as often unspoken social codes and standards began to surface as enforceable acts of social control. Though segregation in many forms, likely in most cases to be associated with employment and financial gain, existed before this time now in an attempt to maintain order or even simply bolster feelings of superiority that already existed communities in states even as unlikely as Oregon adopted segregations laws.
The laws became so detailed that as many historians would say there was no detail to small for some state and local governments to legally mandate segregation and enforcement of. (Bell 207) The numbers of laws and states enacting them grew exponentially at the beginning of the twentieth century and enforcement of the ‘equal’ portion of the federal segregation ruling, established in Plessy v. Ferguson were rarely given any thought.
So from the turn of the beginning of the twentieth century the biggest obstacle that faced non-whites revolved around the struggle to reestablish those mostly unmet legal successes of the reformation of the post civil war. This challenge was not born lightly as many court cases and personal injuries occurred that challenged brave individuals and determined communities to maintain the greatest possible strength. Many blacks especially in the south were held down by the inability to gain financial growth that was sustainable enough to show personal progress through the family.
It was the responsibility of the law to make attempts to ensure that the offerings for employment, housing and education were provided in an equal manor to both races but the simple fact that the laws maintaining segregation existed coupled with the long held social belief in the superiority of the white race ensured that the separate facilities were almost guaranteed in most cases to be inferior to those of the whites.
Antebellum gains that had been made through legal rulings such as the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868 required more constitutional and legal support than would seem necessary if one were simply to look toward the legal statutes as guidelines for social changes. In fact it required so much legal reinforcement that a 1965 voters rights act was required to enable blacks to vote without fear of registration exams and/or arbitrary poll taxes. (Bell 122) To a large degree any gains that were made required not only continued and vigilant enforcement, which was not received in most cases but also required a mix of legal action and social action to maintain the integrity of the intent of the laws. (Bell 119)
Historically speaking, as I have said before no law amendment or groups of laws stand isolated from other legal precedents or even social opinion. Whether bolstered by state or federal amendments and/or acts or Supreme Court rulings each gainful law required many before it to established an unfair system of governance. These shortcomings had to be legally struck down and usually several stepping stone cases that can be seen as foundational causation for the tide turning rulings such as can be seen in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954). (“Brown v. Board of Education, Issue: Racial Segregation in Public Schools” at PBS.org, 2003) The staging ground for this development began with several other cases including those limited to education like Briggs v. Elliot (1942) and Gebhart v. Belton, and those such as the Plessy case, which were not.
Under the direction of social theorist and attorney Charles Houston the NAACP developed a precedents building strategy that furthered the cause of desegregation. His plan for education desegregation included three points of focus that would reassert the rights of the Negro in a legal sense through a slow process that chipped away at the laws and would reform society as a by product. (McNeil 135-137) Houston attacked inequality in pay among the races, inequality in transportation and facilities and inequalities in graduate and professional education. Through this three-stage process he handled many Supreme Court cases that eventually led to Brown, which still required much energy to enforce but set the precedence for the inherent inequality of separation. (McNeil 136)
In one of the first court cases associated with education and discrimination is the case of Gaines v. University of Missouri Law School in which gains an aptly qualified candidate for admission was denied such admission based solely on his race. The NAACP and its team of lawyers argued the case to the Supreme Court where a complete reversal of the rejected petition of the Missouri State Supreme Court was offered as the legal education at the all black university Lincoln was deemed less adequate than was that at the University of Missouri. (McNeil 143-151)
The major social issue addressed in Brown regards the idea that any separation of the races constitutes an inequality, though it could have been soundly based on the actual inequality of the services provided to blacks and whites the simple realization of segregation is enough to determine inequality of service. Through the continued reasoning that segregation requires an inherent one over the other mentality and additionally the real financial barriers to black schools would exist indefinitely and continue to provide substandard school facilities if black schools were funded by property taxes paid in black neighborhoods, which is the general way in which schools are funded.
The Brown decision accurately reflected the operating reality of race in America because the simple act of separating the races requires one to assume superiority while the other inferiority and through both subtle and also not so subtle methods the lower cast will be treated as such. The resulting actions are often reflected in substandard personal treatment as well as substandard opportunities and institutions. Separation also continues the accentuation of real and/or false differences continuing a development of fear and ignorance of the unknown. Through just these two points can be seen a case for a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection and even the Plessy case establishment of separate but equal.
Allport, Gordon. “The Nature of Prejudice.” Race, Racism and American Law. Ed.
Derek Bell. Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1973. 84-87.
Gordon Allport is a leading social scientist discussing the foundations of race and prejudice as it effect the United States. His work, “The Nature of Prejudice,” is recognized as one of the most influential analysis of the reasons for the perpetuation of racial prejudice.
Bell, Derek ed. Race, Racism and American Law. Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1973.
Derek Bell is one of the most influential and controversial writers on the issue of race in America. His exhaustive research in Race Racism and the American law provides a fundamental social and legal timeline for the changes that have taken place in the United States with regards to the law and how it effects public opinion and action.
Brown v. Board of Education, Issue: Racial Segregation in Public Schools” at PBS.org retrieved 11 5, 2003 at http://www.pbs.org/jefferson/enlight/sctips1.htm.
This website provides a crucial look at several fundamental court cases that effect racial and social change during the civil rights movement. Brown v. Board of education Topeka, Kansas is thought of as the most influential Supreme Court ruling of the movement and its details and effects are concisely summarized here.
Finkelman, Paul “Segregation in the United States,” at Encarte Africana retrieved 11 5, 2003 at http://www.africana.com/research/encarta/segregation.asp.
Encarte Africa is a web-based information network for everything African-American. This particular article expresses the foundation of segregation in both de facto and de jure manners and explains the lasting effects of the history of the times they exist.
McNeil, Genna R. Groundwork. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.
Genna McNeil in Groundwork defines the slow process of the destruction of segregation in the United States and shows the connective effects that the historical perspective can have upon the future. The work pays special attention to the legal actions and the history of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) a clearly fundamental group for change.
Nash, Gregory, Robert Weiss Eds. “Borden, Found Cumbering the Soil: Manifest Destiny and the Indian in the Nineteenth Century.” Race Racism and American Law. Ed. Derek
Bell. Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1973. 59-66.
Nash and Weiss explain the older historical destruction of the Native American lands analogously with other racial segregation in the United States issues both older and newer and establishes how fundamental beliefs of superiority effect whole social actions.
South, The.” The Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. 2000.
This encyclopedia entry explains both the defining borders of the U.S. region known as the South and also briefly explains it social history of segregation and economy.
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