De Facto Segregation

Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made racial segregation illegal in the United States, the practice of segregation continued. This practice of separating minorities, especially black Americans, from whites was labeled de facto segregation, and commonly occurred in schools, though such public places as diners, beaches, and others remained segregated. To explore this concept, consider the following de facto segregation definition.

Definition of De Facto Segregation


  1. Racial segregation that happens “by fact,” rather than by legal requirement.


1960s   American idiom

What is De Facto Segregation

Although Congress ended the legal practice of segregating blacks from whites, the reality is that the practice continued through the 1960s. In fact, the struggle for equal, non-segregated rights continued through the following decade as well. De facto segregation refers to racial segregation that is not supported by law, but engaged in nonetheless. This may not be an intentional effort to keep the races apart, but be a result of natural conditions, or due to the gulf between financial classes. For instance, even if a school district does not separate students according to race, schools in different areas of the district may have more students of one race than others.

For example:

Alicia’s two children attend school two blocks from their home. The school is attended by 90% black students, the other 10% being comprised of a mixture of races. Alicia feels her children aren’t getting the quality education they deserve, and makes a claim of racism through segregation. This, however, is an example of de facto segregation, in which the large number of black students is due to the primarily black population of the school district, not any action taken by the school district or other governmental agency.

De Facto Segregation vs. De Jure Segregation

While de facto segregation occurs as a matter of circumstance (or “fact”), de jure segregation, which translates as “according to the law,” occurs based on law. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 put an end to segregation by law, but lacked the punch to end segregation in fact. Over time, businesses and other public places began serving people of all races, and allowing them into their establishments.

De facto segregation vs. de jure segregation is most easily observed in relation to education. Because school enrollment is based on geographical grouping of students, it is not uncommon for schools to remain segregated de facto, though there are no laws that require it.

De Facto Segregation in School Systems

Although racial segregation in schools was put to an end, as far as the law is concerned, by Brown v. Board of Education, de facto segregation still exists. This is because children are usually assigned attendance at a particular school, depending on their residence address. Residential segregation, then, creates educational segregation. More, school budgets are often dependent on property tax revenues, so poor areas tend to have poorer schools.

This shows, not only in the lack of facilities, but in the discontent over low pay expressed by teachers and other school employees. Examples of de facto segregation have proven, throughout history, to be much more difficult to do away with than de jure segregation, as it cannot simply be legislated away.

De Facto Segregation Example in the Supreme Court

America was founded on the belief that everyone should have an equal opportunity to thrive and succeed, as long as they’re willing to work for that dream. The reality that slavery existed flew in the face of America’s lofty standard of freedom and equality. Even after slavery was abolished following the Civil War, until about 1865, racism continued to plague black Americans, segregating them from white society.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which as adopted in 1868, guarantees equal protection under the law – to all citizens – as it states:

“[no state] shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

This was not enough to change long-held attitudes that black Americans were somehow inferior, and should be shunned. The phrase “separate but equal” came into use as a legal doctrine was embraced in which, as long as any public facility provided equal services to each race, the races could be physically segregated. This included services provided by any governmental agency, public facilities and accommodations, housing, education, medical care, employment, and transportation.

In 1951, the parents of 20 children filed a class action lawsuit against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kansas, which operated separate elementary schools for black and white students. The parents wanted the school district to stop its policy of segregation. The parent named at the head of the class action lawsuit, Oliver L. Brown, was a welder for the Santa Fe Railroad, and assistant pastor at his local church. His daughter, a third-grader, walked six blocks each day to the bus stop, then rode a mile to her segregated “black school,” Monroe Elementary. The “white school,” Sumner Elementary, was just seven blocks from the Brown’s home.

The court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing that the Supreme Court had set a precedent when it ruled that state law requiring “separate but equal” facilities in railway cars, was not unconstitutional. Although the court acknowledged a belief that segregated schooling had a negative effect on black children, it denied the parents’ claim based on the fact that the white and black schools in Topeka were substantially equal in buildings, curricula, qualifications of teachers, and transportation.

The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard the case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1953. Chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (“NAACP”), Thurgood Marshall, argued on behalf of the plaintiff parents. The issue was not whether the conditions at the black schools were equal to the conditions at the white schools, but whether the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited even the operation of separate public schools.

The high court said that, while the Fourteenth Amendment did not require school integration, it did not prohibit it. It also noted that, in modern times, public education is an essential element of people’s lives, often defining the core of democratic citizenship, socialization, and even professional status. Children denied a quality education are less likely to succeed in life. The court also noted that separating children on the basis of race had a negative effect on the children’s self-esteem, and their ability to learn.

Although the Supreme Court justices were initially divided on the issue, they eventually came to a unanimous decision, ruling that, when a state strives to provide public education, all children must be afforded the same right to that education. The Court noted that racial segregation, even de facto segregation, was “inherently unequal,” and therefore unconstitutional. Still, the issue of desegregating, or integrating, students proved to be a laborious task. In this example of de facto segregation legislation, more hearings were required, and finally an order by the Supreme Court, issued on May 31, 1955, that desegregation occur with “all deliberate speed.”

De Facto Segregation in Healthcare

Even though there is no legal, or de jure, segregation in healthcare, segregation does, in fact, exist. This is, once again, largely the result of the grouping of minorities into poorer neighborhoods, which are notorious for having few opportunities in healthcare. Although 20 million Americans gained much-needed health insurance with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (also known as “Obamacare”), it is estimated that, in 2016, over 30 million people still have inadequate healthcare coverage, or none at all.

Healthcare suffers a racial divide, in all areas of health, from infant health and mortality, to life expectancy. While healthcare professionals acknowledge the disparity, the sheer size of the dilemma is daunting, as the actual problem is tied to the de facto segregation that crowds minorities into poor communities. A lack of availability of quality, regular healthcare leads to worsening health problems.

A shortage of black doctors, who people in largely-black communities seem to be more likely to trust, creates an additional backlog. By the time many of these people are seen by a neighborhood doctor, their problems have become quite serious. Much like the issues of education and employment, de facto segregation in healthcare creates a vicious cycle, making it very difficult for people to rise above the societal expectations.

But segregation in healthcare is not only a matter of unequal access to healthcare, but unequal quality of healthcare when it is available at all. While de jure segregation was made illegal in healthcare, as well as other areas, de facto segregation has remained difficult to end. This may be largely due to the fact that the government, which is bound by the Civil Rights Act, is directly responsible for government-funded healthcare facilities. Many facilities that provide medical services are privately owned. From clinics and emergency rooms, to nursing homes, oversight in issues of segregation is nearly non-existent.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Affordable Care Act – A comprehensive health insurance reform that aims to provide more American’s with affordable, quality health care.
  • Class Action Lawsuit – A lawsuit filed by one person, on behalf of a larger group of people with a common interest in the matter.

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