Separate but equal doctrine Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Proposition that equal protection of all citizens under the law as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment is not threatened by social segregation of the races as long as all groups are treated in an equal manner.

In Plessy v. Ferguson[case]Plessy v. Ferguson[Plessy v. Ferguson] (1896), the Supreme Court made a distinction between political rights, which are protected under the Constitution, and social conditions, which are not legally protected. It held that social conditions related to race, such as segregation, were natural, inevitable, and not necessarily an indication of the inferiority or superiority of one race over another. This ruling reflected the federal government’s growing willingness during the late 1800’s to strike a compromise with the South on the issue of freed slaves’ rights as citizens. The federal government’s desire to gain the full participation of the former Confederate states in the Union affected its attitude toward segregation and other racial issues.Equal protection clauseEqual protection clause

The separate but equal doctrine negatively affected the legal gains made by African Americans during the early Reconstruction period after the Civil War. The Court’s ruling in Plessy legitimized the state laws establishing and enforcing racial segregation, known as Jim Crow laws, that proliferated throughout the South beginning in the 1880’s. Whites-only and blacks-only neighborhoods were upheld as socially and legally correct. Transportation in all its forms railroad cars, steamships, and buses was likewise segregated. Separate facilities or entrances for whites and African Americans to such public and private places as schools, churches, restaurants, libraries, hotels, public parks, healthcare centers, and theaters became commonplace. Even water fountains, public restrooms, waiting areas, and public telephones became designated as either for whites or African Americans.

The social segregation of the races led to the firm entrenchment of a separate but unequal social system. Consequently, the social distance between whites and African Americans that had existed during slavery was maintained, although with new norms and practices. This system had a tremendous impact on generations to follow, both in terms of people’s attitudes toward minorities and in the opportunities African Americans were able to pursue. The separate but equal doctrine was not reversed until 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education.

Further Reading
  • Kromkowski, John A., ed. Race and Ethnic Relations. Guilford, Conn.: Dushkin/Brown & Benchmark, 1996.
  • Schuman, Howard, Charlotte Steeh, Lawrence Bobo, and Maria Krysan. Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, 1997.
  • Weinstein, Allen, and Frank Otto Gatell. The Segregation Era, 1863-1954: A Modern Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Brown v. Board of Education

Equal protection clause

Plessy v. Ferguson

Race and discrimination


Segregation, de jure

Categories: History