Separate but Equal Doctrine

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The first type of racial segregation law to spread over the South was the "Jim Crow car" law, requiring blacks and whites to be seated separately in railroad passenger cars. When the Supreme Court held such a law valid in plessy v. ferguson (1896), the majority concluded that, so long as the facilities for each race were equal, the enforced separation of the races did not itself impose any inequality on black persons. In support of this separate but equal doctrine, the Court drew on a pre-civil war decision in Massachusetts, upholding racial segregation in the public schools. (See roberts v. boston.)

Although the doctrine originated in the context of state regulation of private conduct, it was soon extended to validate segregation in state-operated facilities. The races were separated by the law's command in courtrooms; in the public schools (see gong lum v. rice) ; in state offices; in public parks, beaches, swimming pools, and golf courses; in prisons and jails. Some state institutions, such as universities, simply excluded blacks altogether; in most southern states there were separate state colleges for blacks. Throughout this system of segregation, the formal assumption was that facilities for blacks and whites might be separate, but they were equal.

Given the undoubted fact that segregation was imposed for the purpose of maintaining blacks in a condition of inferiority, the very term separate but equal is internally inconsistent. But the Plessy opinion had rejected the claim that racial separation itself imposed on blacks an inequality in the form of inferiority. (See badges of servitude.) Yet Plessy set the terms of judicial inquiry in a way that ultimately undermined the separate but equal principle. The question of justifications for inequality was largely neglected; the Court focused on the question whether inequality existed.

In railroad cars, it was easy to achieve a rough equality of physical facilities. Similarly, a public swimming pool might be reserved for whites three days a week, reserved for blacks three days, and closed the other day. In education, however, inequalities of enormous proportion persisted up to the decision in brown v. board of education (1954) and beyond. Black colleges lacked professional schools; black high schools emphasized vocational training and minimized preparation for college. In physical plants, teachers' salaries, levels of teacher training, counseling services, curricula—in every measurable aspect—the separate education offered blacks was anything but the equal of the education offered whites.

One strategy devised by the NAACP for ending school segregation was thus the filing of lawsuits aimed at forcing school boards to equalize spending for black education—at crushing expense. At the same time, a direct assault was made on segregation in higher education, and especially graduate education, where it was easiest to prove the inequality of facilities. (See missouri ex rel. gaines v. canada; sweatt v. painter.) These decisions, following Plessy 's lead, focused on the bare question of inequality. Inevitably, these cases came to touch the question whether segregation itself implied unequal education. The Brown opinion pursued that inquiry, found educational inequality in the fact of enforced separation, and—without discussing any purported justifications for segregation—held school segregation unconstitutional.

Separate but equal thus ended its doctrinal sway in the field of education. Within a few years the Supreme Court, in a series of per curiam opinions consisting entirely of citations to Brown, had invalidated all state-sponsored segregation. The separate but equal doctrine was laid to rest.

Kenneth L. Karst


Levy, Leonard W. and Jones, Douglas 1972 Jim Crow Education: Origins of the "Separate but Equal" Doctrine. In Levy, Leonard W., Judgments: Essays on American Constitutional History. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

Oberst, Paul 1973 The Strange Career of Plessy v. Ferguson. Arizona Law Review 15:389–418.

Woodward, C. Vann 1966 The Strange Career of Jim Crow, 2nd rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press.