Segregation is the act of separating certain people or things from their main group, and keeping them isolated due to the characteristics of that group. In a legal sense, this includes separation due to such traits as race or religion. Insofar as American history is concerned, an example of segregation can be seen in the practice of separating black and white Americans, and treating each group differently due to their skin color. For instance, water fountains and bathrooms were specifically defined as “black” and “white” as recently as the 1960s. To explore this concept, consider the following segregation definition.

Definition of Segregation


  1. The act of separating people or things from the main group.
  2. The institutional separation of an ethnic, racial, or religious group from the majority.
  3. The state of being segregated, or separated from the main group.
  4. The practice or policy of keeping people with certain traits (race, ethnicity, religion, etc.) separate from one another.


1545-1555    Late Latin sēgregātiōn

What is Segregation

Segregation is the practice of keeping one or several individuals or things separate from one another, or from a larger group. This is usually done so that each group can be tracked or studied, or be given special treatment of some kind. However, just because the treatment is labeled “special,” does not mean that it is positive. In the U.S., segregation is most commonly used to refer to the act of separating groups of people based on their race. Thankfully, while segregation was legalized in 1896, it was not long (1954) until it was officially outlawed once again.

Racial Segregation

Racial segregation is the practice of restricting people’s rights based on their race. People can be racially segregated in the schools and churches they attend, and in the facilities they visit, such as parks, restaurants, and restrooms. Racial segregation has been used by the political majority in many areas of the world, to maintain the economic advantages and higher standards of living that they enjoy as members of the “superior” race.

Historically, while white populations have often been guilty of engaging in racial segregation, conquerors like the Asian Mongols and the American Aztecs have also participated in such practices. Racial segregation can be found in any part of the world where multiple races coexist, save for places like Hawaii and Brazil, where multi-racial people are the norm. Places like these have been found to engage in social discrimination, rather than flat-out legalizing the practice of segregation.

De Jure Segregation

De jure segregation refers to segregation that is enforced by law. An example of segregation that could be considered de jure segregation was the U.S. concept of “separate but equal.” Under this practice, blacks and whites were permitted to be separated by law, so long as they were both provided with equal accommodations. This is where black and white water fountains, bathrooms, waiting rooms, schools, and even hospital facilities came into play. Under de jure segregation, the law dictated that blacks could not use the facilities that were designated to for use by “whites.”

De Facto Segregation

De facto segregation refers to segregation that happens for some reason other than the law. This may be a voluntary practice, such as people of a certain race opting to attend church with others of their race, rather than in an integrated venue. De facto segregation also refers to involuntary segregation that simply occurs, called “segregation in fact,” because of factors beyond the segregated group’s control.

Although the state of Massachusetts’ Racial Imbalance Act of 1965 made segregation of schools illegal, the schools remained in a state of de facto segregation. This is because people of various races tended to live in their own neighborhoods; their children attending the neighborhood schools. In this example of segregation in fact, primarily black neighborhoods resulted in primarily black schools.

The federal government demanded the actual desegregation of public schools in Boston, Massachusetts, which took place from 1974-1988. During this period, schools were ordered to bus black students to “white” schools, and vice versa. The goal of this was to force desegregation, as black and white students finally attended the same schools together. White parents who were outraged that their children were being bused longer distances opted to enroll their children in private schools, or to uproot their families and move out of the city entirely.

School Segregation Examples

In the 1890s, the landmark case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was legal to maintain segregated schools, as long as the accommodations in “white” and “black” schools were “equal.” This is the doctrine of separate but equal.

The ruling in Plessy was abolished nearly 60 years later, as the Supreme Court heard the case of Brown v. Board of Education. To understand how segregation evolved and eventually met its demise, it is important to study the details of both of these landmark cases.

Plessy v. Ferguson

The details of the case of Plessy v. Ferguson concerned Homer Plessy, a man of mixed race who, on June 7, 1892, took a seat in what was classified to be the whites-only railway car of the East Louisiana Railroad of New Orleans. Plessy specifically did this to challenge the state’s law on separate train cars for blacks and whites, and the railroad had been given a heads-up in advance that he fully intended on doing just that.

Plessy was asked to leave the car and sit in the blacks-only car. When he refused, he was arrested. At trial, which was necessary to legally challenge the law, Plessy’s attorneys advanced the argument that segregated train accommodations violated Plessy’s constitutional rights under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. The trial judge did not agree. He ruled that the state of Louisiana had the right to regulate the railroad, as it ran within the state lines, and sentenced Plessy to pay a fine of $25.

The case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court, as it dealt with the state’s ability to make laws that violated rights granted by the Constitution. The Court ultimately decided that a) Louisiana law did nothing to imply that blacks were inferior in any way; and b) that the law separated blacks from whites as a “matter of public policy,” thereby confirming segregation and the “separate but equal” doctrine under the law.

Brown v. Board of Education

In 1954, history was changed forever when segregation in schools was outlawed, as a result of what was happening at the public school level at that time. The case of Brown v. Board of Education combined four different cases, making it a class action lawsuit. Each of the cases involved was rooted in an act of segregation that had occurred at the public school level, based on the race of the students attending. Specifically, each case concerned a black child who was denied admittance to a white school, according to the separate but equal doctrine.

Oliver L. Brown, one of the parents involved in the suit, was chosen to head up the lawsuit as a legal strategy, so as to put a face to the cause. Brown’s daughter, Linda, was forced to walk six blocks to her bus stop in order to transported to Monroe Elementary, her designated “black” school. Meanwhile, Sumner Elementary, a designated “white” school, was located only seven blocks from the Browns’ home.

The trial court ruled against the plaintiffs, holding that the schools for blacks and whites were equal enough to satisfy the law. When the matter was taken before the U.S. Supreme Court, it effectively abolished segregation, ruling that black students had to be admitted to white public schools. The ruling acknowledged that the segregation of these students was doing them an unnecessary harm. The Court also ruled that segregation in schools did not, in fact, enforce equality, particularly because students were being blatantly discriminated against, and were being provided with lower-quality options due to the color of their skin.

Segregation in Schools Today

Unfortunately, segregation in schools did not end with the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. In fact, segregation is alive and well in today’s educational system, with black and Hispanic students of impoverished families being crowded together in their neighborhood schools. A report published by the Government Accountability Office in 2016 shows that Hispanic students in particular tend to suffer the consequences of segregation, being deemed “triple segregated” by race, poverty, and language barriers.

The report noted that the number of students deemed eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program has skyrocketed since the 2000-2001 school year. Research has established that students living in poverty tend to do poorly in their studies, compared to those from an economically stable family.

More and more black and Hispanic students are attending high-poverty schools that offer them fewer academic opportunities. The Office of Civil Rights, established under the U.S. Department of Education, handles thousands of cases of alleged discrimination, every year, including complaints of segregation and racial discrimination.

Segregation in America

Segregation in America has largely been based on race. One of the more notable examples of segregation in America is found in the Jim Crow laws, which were in effect from 1876 to 1965. The Jim Crow laws segregated people of color by establishing separate housing, jobs, schools, public transportation, and even prisons for use by “white” or “non-white” individuals.

Disturbingly, despite the fact that blacks had been granted American citizenship and the right to vote as a result of the abolition of slavery, the Jim Crow laws worked as a “one step forward, two steps back” sort of process. They made blacks into second-class citizens, and essentially nullified their right to vote by implementing such exclusionary tactics as literacy tests and poll taxes, to prevent blacks from being able to vote.

Segregation in America was able to thrive at that point in history because a majority of politicians who were on the side of the black citizens before the Civil War, withdrew their support after the war. They did this in an attempt to mend fences between the Northern and Southern states. Blacks tried to challenge the institutionalized racism that the Jim Crow laws fostered, but that was about the time that the landmark decision in Plessy was handed down, which effectively legalized segregation.

Ultimately, what was left of the Jim Crow Laws after Brown was decided in 1954 were overturned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The former outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; and the latter reinstated black Americans’ right to vote under the Fifteenth Amendment.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Class Action Lawsuit – The combining of racial groups via marriage, cohabitation, or procreation.
  • Separate but Equal – The doctrine that races could be legally segregated, as long as facilities provided to both were roughly equal.