The Two Faces of Segregation

[A possible Highlander editorial in the future, but for now, a standalone piece.]

The Two Faces of Segregation


Kenneth Burchfiel

The history books purport that segregation ended on the 2nd of July, 1964, the moment the Civil Rights Act was passed. No longer could a white owner evict an African-American tenant based on the color of his or her skin. No longer, the bill claimed, would students be classified by race and shipped off to separate schools.

I wish with all my heart that the professors of history were correct; as it is, they were only half right. The lawmakers took care of the legal side of segregation, but its subtler, more prevalent cousin lives on.

The story of the divided fifties and sixties was the story of “de jure,” or “by law,” segregation. Jim Crow laws and court rulings that declared schools to be both separate and equal were but a few examples of the legalized division that King and Malcolm X took on. Though only part of the problem, de jure segregation took on the term’s full definition—as if the only things keeping one race from the other were bills and legislation.

This was the concrete, conspicuous half of segregated America; in all honesty, it was also the tamer side. The laws that divided white and black were imposing at their height, yet weak enough to be shattered by judges’ gavels and Johnson’s pen. Today, de jure segregation exists only in the history books.

Unfortunately, the issue of segregation goes far beyond the reach of bills and court rulings. Children of all races are allowed to laugh and learn together in the same classroom, yet the school at which I learn is mostly white—and the school at which I tutor nearly all Hispanic and African American. No landlord may deny a prospective tenant housing on the basis of skin color, but regardless, neighborhoods in the capital city are still classified as “black” or “white.” The famous legal decisions of the fifties and sixties had a muted impact on the demographics of colleges, let alone lunch tables.

The problem is that, engrossed in the timid creature that is segregation by law, our historians and lawmakers forgot about a much larger and more dangerous animal. It cannot be reined in with court proceedings or tranquilized with amendments; it prowls every neighborhood street, every office building in the United States. Worse yet, this animal is largely invisible.

The name most assign this creature is “de facto” segregation. It is comprised not of court rulings nor congressional decisions, but of economic gaps and subtle prejudices that still manage to tear us apart.

Consider this tale of two schools. McLean High of Northern Virginia is 70 percent white; MacFarland Middle, nestled in Northwest Washington, is 100 percent non-white. The former is included (however arbitrarily) in Newsweek Magazine’s “Top 100” public schools list for 2008; MacFarland made less positive headlines for a school shooting in 2006. McLean just had a renovation, whereas MacFarland looks ready to crumble.

No longer can these discrepancies be explained away by de jure segregation. They point instead to a sobering reality: economic gaps and our own closet prejudices are holding minorities back from the schools and jobs that they deserve. There are no laws left to scapegoat, no segregationists to point the finger at. You and I are the problem.

Take your eyes off the paper or screen and look around. Chances are, you are surrounded by people who look like you, speak like you and might even dress like you. The newspapers can talk all they want about this supposed age of integration, but the typical American goes a long way towards disproving them.

We cannot blame “the man” for de facto divisions; instead, it’s time that we mustered up the courage to blame ourselves. Lunch tables, office boardrooms and even the houses of Congress are all evidence of the same fact: the majority of Americans are self-segregating, no matter their intent. Today’s supposed post-racial country has carried on its old traditions of division and discrepancy, thanks in part to citizens like me who are too lazy, too scared—to brain-dead to fully integrate.

The good news is that, in being the problem, we are also the solution. King and Malcolm X had to cut their way through legal undergrowth for the house of de jure to fall, but we merely need to reach out to those who seem the most distant from us. Every new handshake or friendship on our part is a nail in the coffin; every step towards equality in payment and job opportunity will help put this era to rest.

The civil rights heroes of the fifties and sixties spoke of the need to wake up to the prejudiced laws in America. I suppose it is time that we woke up to our prejudiced selves, got out of bed and fought for economic and social change in a still-divided country. Until that point, the history books that write about the “end” of segregation will only be telling half the story.


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