George M. Frederickson on U.S. Residential Segregation

Selections from

From Chapter VI: "Two Strange Careers: Segregation in South Africa and the South"

Discussion of Racial Zoning Ordinances in U.S. Southern Cities

"If proposals to separate whites and blacks into geographically distinct rural areas never really got off the ground, another form of areal segregation -- the urban residential type -- not only aroused great interest but was actually implemented in several southern cities between 1910 and 1915. Most of the residential segregation ordinances passed during the period prohibited whits and blacks from living on the same block as a way of establishing firm boundaries between existing neighborhoods; but Virginia went further by passing a state law authorizing the systematic division of entire cities into 'segregation districts,' within which only one race could legally reside. At least two cities, Roanoke and Portsmouth, attempted to put this scheme into effect. The Virginia plan and the intent, if not the precise form, of many of the local ordinances bear a strong resemblance to the South African Group Areas Act of 1950. Building upon a series of earlier laws and regulations limiting the rights of Africans and Indians to reside or trade outside designated districts or 'locations,' this act was designed to confine each racial group -- including the Coloreds, who had previously been immune from this kind of treatment -- to its own clearly delineated residential areas. (One consequence was severe economic loss for members of the designated groups; for they lost the right to rade or operate businesses outside their own areas.) Such legalized separation, which was ruthlessly carried out in South Africa in the 1950s and 60s, was aborted in the United States by a Supreme Court decision of 1917. The Court held that a Louisville residential segregation law was unconstitutional because it interfered with the legal right of an owner to dispose of his real estate as he saw fit.* Here, as in the case of the industrial color bar, the Fourteenth Amendment and the powerful American commitment to economic laissez-faire combined to inhibit the legalization of racial discrimination. Other ways were found to create a high degree of de facto residential separation and ghettoization in American cities, but the comprehensiveness and efficiency of a governmentally supported and centrally planned program were never attained.[24]

"In the South, on the other hand, the essence of segregation was not geographical or even spatial but was rather an effort to maintain hierarchical social distance between racial groups that were too much involved with each other to be separated by sharply drawn territorial, cultural, or economic boundaries." (254)


* Despite this decision, several American cities attempted to enact residential segregation laws in the 1920s and 1930s; but all these efforts were declared unconstitutional by lower courts. (253-254)

[24]See Charles S. Johnson, Patterns of Negro Segregation (New York, 1943), 173-176; and Roger L. Rice, "Residential Segregation by Law, 1910-1917," Journal of Southern History, XXXIV (1968), 179-99. On the Group Areas Act, see Carter, Politics of Inequality, 84-91.

Source: George M. Fredrickson, White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).

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