The Rights and Wrongs of Segregation
By Laurence M. Vance
Segregation is alive and well.
After a series of sexual assaults against women in Cologne, Germany, by Muslim migrants, a German rail service announced it was instituting “women only” train cars to protect women who ride the train. The Mitteldeutsche Regiobahn rail company says “the segregated train cars are designed to make women traveling alone or with small children feel safe.” Each train will have two “women-only” compartments “located at the center of the train and close to the customer service compartment.” Boys up to the age of ten will be allowed access to the special cars as well.
But this is nothing new. In Delhi, India, the metro rail system added a “women only” car to its trains back in 2010 after numerous complaints of women being sexual harassed by men.
“Women-only” train cars can also be found in Japan, Indonesia, Brazil, and Egypt. In some of these and other countries, there also exist “women-only” buses.
Here in the United States, the subject of segregated train cars brings to the mind of most Americans—except public school-educated students who slept during history class—the famous Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson from back in 1896.
In 1890, the state of Louisiana enacted a law requiring segregated rail cars for whites and blacks. The first section of the statute enacted that all railway companies carrying passengers in their coaches in this State shall provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races by providing two or more passenger coaches for each passenger train, or by dividing the passenger coaches by a partition so as to secure separate accommodations: Provided, That this section shall not be construed to apply to street railroads. No person or persons, shall be admitted to occupy seats in coaches other than the ones assigned to them on account of the race they belong to.
The second section required that the officers of such passenger trains shall have power and are hereby required to assign each passenger to the coach or compartment used for the race to which such passenger belongs; any passenger insisting on going into a coach or compartment to which by race he does not belong shall be liable to a fine of twenty-five dollars, or in lieu thereof to imprisonment for a period of not more than twenty days in the parish prison, and any officer of any railroad insisting on assigning a passenger to a coach or compartment other than the one set aside for the race to which said passenger belongs shall be liable to a fine of twenty-five dollars, or in lieu thereof to imprisonment for a period of not more than twenty days in the parish prison; and should any passenger refuse to occupy the coach or compartment to which he or she is assigned by the officer of such railway, said officer shall have power to refuse to carry such passenger on his train, and for such refusal neither he nor the railway company which he represents shall be liable for damages in any of the courts of this State.
The third section provided penalties for the refusal or neglect of the officers, directors, conductors, and employees of railway companies to comply with the act, but with the caveat that “nothing in this act shall be construed as applying to nurses attending children of the other race.”
Homer Plessy, an “octoroon” (1/8 black), was enlisted to challenge the law. On June 7, 1892, Plessy bought a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad in New Orleans and boarded a “white-only” only train car. After refusing to vacate the car, he was arrested and removed from the train. The judge presiding over his trial, John Ferguson, found him guilty and ordered him to pay a $25 fine. The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the judge’s ruling.
The U.S. Supreme Court took the case on appeal and ruled by a vote of 7-1 against Plessy. In the majority opinion, authored by Justice Henry Brown, the Court said:
So far, then, as a conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment is concerned, the case reduces itself to the question whether the statute of Louisiana is a reasonable regulation, and, with respect to this, there must necessarily be a large discretion on the part of the legislature. In determining the question of reasonableness, it is at liberty to act with reference to the established usages, customs, and traditions of the people, and with a view to the promotion of their comfort and the preservation of the public peace and good order. Gauged by this standard, we cannot say that a law which authorizes or even requires the separation of the two races in public conveyances is unreasonable, or more obnoxious to the Fourteenth Amendment than the acts of Congress requiring separate schools for colored children in the District of Columbia, the constitutionality of which does not seem to have been questioned, or the corresponding acts of state legislatures.
This case was overturned by the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 when the Court ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
As today is the 120th anniversary of the Plessy case, it is a good time to review the rights and wrongs of segregation.
The word segregation, like discrimination, has been so demonized that most people consider it to be a synonym for racism.
But segregation in and of itself is not inherently wrong, or bad, or evil. To segregate is to separate or set apart something from other things or from a main body or group. Farmers segregate their crops. Cashiers segregate their bills and coins. Grocers segregate their produce. Fruit growers segregate good fruit from bad. Schools segregate students according to grade level. Orchestras segregate musicians by the instruments they play.
Yes, but (it is objected) segregation of people should never be based on race. But why not? That segregation should never be based on race is one of those statements that people accept as inherently true and not in need of any defense or explanation.
Segregation based on race (or anything else), although it may not be moral, ethical, wise, or just, should be perfectly legal, as long as it is private, voluntary, and peaceful.
As it stands now, individuals have the right, on property they own or control, to segregate people by race (or anything else). For example, guests at a wedding or dinner party. Now, do people actually try to segregate guests by race at weddings or dinner parties? I highly doubt it. Some of the guests—from any race—might become offended and leave. And what would be the point anyway? As it stands now, what is more likely to happen is that if an individual doesn’t want to be around someone from a particular race, then he will exclude people of that particular race from his event or not go as a guest to an event where people from that race are present. But in the unlikely case that a private segregated event were held, the segregation would have to be voluntary in the sense that guests could either accept the segregated seating or leave. As long as the event was private, voluntary, and peaceful; that is, no one was forced to attend or forced to stay, then it would be perfectly legal, as it should be. This doesn’t mean that the segregated event would be a good thing. That is entirely subjective. What it does mean is that the government would not interfere in any way with private, voluntary, peaceful activity no matter who thought it was immoral, unethical, unwise, or unjust.
But in a free society (which, of course we don’t live in), businesses would also have the right to practice segregation for any reason and on any basis—even by race. The owner of an apartment building would have the right to segregate tenants as he sees fit—by race or any other characteristic. If a potential tenant doesn’t like being segregated on the top floors with similar people, then he can rent another apartment. The owner of a restaurant would have the right to segregate diners as he see fit—by race or any other characteristic. If a potential diner doesn’t like separate entrances, separate restrooms, and separate tables for diners of a particular class or group, then he can eat at another restaurant. In either case: no complaints, no lawsuits, no trials, no lawyers, no fines, and no government involvement in any way with private, voluntary, peaceful activity.
It doesn’t matter if the segregation is based on bigotry, racism, ignorance, or stereotypes. It doesn’t matter if the segregation is stupid, illogical, senseless, or irrational. Private property doesn’t cease to be private property just because a business is opened on it.
But again, what is more likely to happen is that if a business owner doesn’t want to serve someone of a particular race, or someone having some other characteristic he doesn’t like, then he will exclude people of that race, or having that characteristic, from service at his business. After all, no business has a requirement to provide service to any individual, and no individual has a right obtain service at any business. At least not in a free society.
So, in theory, if individuals have the legal right, and businesses should have the legal right, to segregate people by race—even though in practice such segregation would not likely take place—then what was wrong with segregation as it was formerly practiced in the United States?
Up until the 1960s, many state and city governments mandated that business owners segregate their black and white clientele. Business owners could be legally punished for not segregating the races.
Bus and train stations had to have separate waiting rooms and ticket windows for black and white patrons. Buses had to have segregated seating. Railroads had to have separate cars for each race or segregated railcars. Restaurants had to have separate dining areas and separate entrances for black and white diners. Hospitals had to have separate entrances for black and white patients and visitors. Blacks and whites could not play pool together. Black and white juvenile delinquents and mental patients could not be housed together. Separate toilet facilities and drinking fountains had to be provided for each race. Theaters were segregated by race. Bars could not serve drinks to the two races within the same room. Blacks and whites could not be buried in the same cemetery.
These things didn’t happen because business owners were all white racists who didn’t mind taking the black man’s money as long as he could humiliate him while doing so. These things took place because the government mandated that they take place. The government violated the property rights of business owners on a massive scale. It is the government that instituted the segregation of the races. It is the government that maintained segregation by force. It is the government that caused racial injustices. It is the government that fueled animosity between the races.
These things were also the case when it came to government institutions like the public schools. But the solution to the old issue of segregated public schools was not the Brown v. Board of Education decision, it is the same solution to the new issue of transgender students in public schools wanting to use the restroom corresponding to their “gender identity”: abolish the public school system.
Segregation is right when it is practiced privately, voluntarily, and peacefully. Segregation is wrong when it is instituted and enforced by government decree.