A few questions about the separate but equal and the integration movement

Ok I was in various foster homes in the 80s that were African American and since I was into history I often asked about black history and since most of the couples were grandparent types they could vividly remember segregation (and bitterly is a very polite understatement) and it was interesting

but one attitude that I came across was some of the African senior citizens was they didn’t like trust or want to do anything to do with white people what they wanted was a true separate but equal ideal to the point that one old codger that was a friend of one of the families said "that if they had truly made things truly equal that almost no one wouldn’t have wanted to mess with going to the white schools and such at all because for the most part, neither side wanted to interact with the other and it was only from the 40s on that the idea of integration started forming "

Sort of what Malcolm x wanted in the beginning you could say …

So was there this undercurrent of "just give us the same quality of things you have and you can have yours and well tend to ours "?

Hell yeah, there was even a serious “Black Separatism” movement for formally partitioning the country based on race, e.g., in this 1968 article by Robert S. Browne.

Plenty of Black people in the segregation era had positive experiences of (comparative) prosperity and security in their own communities, as long as the white racists would just leave them alone. They also had some very negative experiences of interacting with white people (understatement of the year). It’s not surprising that many of them thought that segregation without active oppression seemed like a more realistic and hopeful prospect than true integration and equality.

There have always been competing schools of thought about what equality means, just like most difficult political issues. I think it helps to think about desegregation in terms of a number of different factions with different interests, and in terms of how those factions’ goals could or couldn’t be met by different solutions.

You had the virulent racists, and their goals were simple. They wanted to enslave people, and if they couldn’t do that, they wanted to de facto enslave them without technically doing so, and if they couldn’t do that, they wanted the absolute bare minimum of rights afforded to them, and so on. Their priorities were based on a moral philosophy that said whites were superior, often by the hand of god.

Then you had a broad range of moderate positions, of people who maybe thought true equality was impossible or maybe thought it was not desirable, who favored some limited form of accommodation. Some were moderate because of their own racism, and some were moderate because of their dim expectations of society, like you hinted at. They didn’t trust the country to give them any more than that, so they were ready to jump at the chance to get what they could.

For (mostly northern) white abolitionists, separate but equal was an idea that was morally unacceptable, because–again like you said–the reason for the continued separation mostly had to do with continued racial hostility: the white people because they were racist towards the black people, and the black people because… white people were racist toward them. To concede that the separation was necessary would be to admit that, OK, yeah, we can never not be a racist society, because we aren’t willing to do it. That was something abolitionists actively fought against, the white ones because of a sense of moral obligation to right the wrong, and the black ones because, well, duh.

So the more radical activists pushed for absolute integration, because they believed that was the only route to equality. Any separation stamped black people with a “badge of inferiority.” That was the reasoning behind Brown v. Board of Education; that no matter how much effort you put into making facilities equal, black children would always be harmed just by the historical fact that being white meant you were a regular person, and being black meant you went to this other facility.

But then the less radical and maybe more pragmatically minded people pointed to the reality of the situation, which was that Brown didn’t actually make anything equal for almost anyone on the day it was decided. There were still decades of battles and hostility and continued bloodshed because a lot of society was willing to fight those battles rather than accept integration. Of course, if you’re like a 27 year old white lawyer from Boston, you have a very different perspective and something very different at stake in those battles than a 68 year old black person in Montgomery. A lot of people thought, well, that’s nice, but it will never happen in the real world, and it would be nice to be able to just be safe from violence and be allowed to send the kids to any decent school, while a lot of other people were ready to fight until it did happen in the real world. It fluctuated over time, as that moderate group grew more and less willing to demand more government intervention in the matter, desegregation efforts were taken more and less seriously, up to the present day. A lot of school districts just never really desegregated, or desegregated exactly to the point they were legally required to, and then became segregated again immediately once the government left them alone.

I wonder whether Brown would have gone the way it did if the segregated schools had been even remotely equal. But they weren’t. Even today, local control of schools means that affluent (mostly suburban) schools are much better funded than poor urban and rural ones. Only equalization payments from the states could change that and that’s unlikely to happen.

Yeah, I wouldn’t say the recollections of older black folk you interacted with in the 1980s would be at all unusual for people of their generation. There were actually a lot of black “successes” from the end of reconstruction up until the Civil Rights era. Almost all of those successes were scenarios where black folks were given space and freedom to develop their “own” lives, institutions, and businesses. It’s that environment that saw the successful development of things like the first black banks, black colleges etc. The interactions between those institutions and white society were often very negative, and at times white society did things that outright attempted to undermine these black institutions.

Government programs and regulations would develop, programs that tended to benefit white owned businesses but not black ones, and regulations that tended to end up being applied very harshly to black owned businesses but hardly at all to white ones. There’s a lot of proof to show that the white segregationist’s claims of “separate but equal” was not remotely reality. Not only was it separate but inequal, with much inequality caused by neglect, it was also inequal because white society deliberately did things to harm and limit any separate black institutions that did attain success.

In that backdrop, someone who was part of the black educated class in the 1950s, I could see taking the position that they just want to be left the fuck alone to try and make their own way. To them it’d be a huge improvement if they could just get the white man to take their boot off their neck. But obviously MLK and black leaders who followed his school of thought felt that the only way to anything that might approach lasting equality was an integrated society. Integration was not, and still isn’t an easy or quick fix, and it’s easy to see how some portions of the black population would view it with skepticism especially back in the eras being discussed.

I honestly do not see how US society/culture can work if it is segregated and done willfully so from both sides.

I can understand African Americans not being keen on it given their experiences but dividing the country in such a way cannot be considered a desirable result.

I agree, but I think the impulse is frankly very “natural”, which is why integration is hard, and a plural society is hard. That doesn’t mean not worthwhile or not what we should aim for, just means it’s not easy.

Humans have a strong tendency to like “their kind” and to be at best suspicious (and often worse) of people who “aren’t their kind.” The trick is to make people see everyone as their kind. Maybe someday that will be our world/country.

I do note that other examples of somewhat plural societies we have, the way they worked was…largely serious segregation. A couple major examples I’m familiar with:

  • Muslim controlled states after the Abbasid conquests of the 700s - These States were Muslim lead, but usually not Muslim majority (some wouldn’t even be Muslim plurality for many hundreds of years), there were usually Muslims, multiple branches of Christianity, Jews, and a few other groups. About the only way that was found to be workable was for these people to live in their own quarters of the major cities, and outside of the major cities, their own villages. They also would have their own legal systems, and the legal systems would only interact as much as necessary. (Muslims were in a privileged position–legal disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims had to be resolved in Muslim courts.) While the specifics changed over the next thousand years, some form of “understanding” along these lines was the norm.

  • Jewish settlement in Eastern Europe / Russia (the Pale of Settlement etc) - While this settlement was long encouraged for various reasons (eventually the tide turned the other way), intermixing of Jews and Christians was not encouraged. The Jews largely lived in separated wards of cities and separate villages, and for day to day matters their own authorities settled issues.

IIRC Italians and Irish and Catholics were once segregated in our society and seen as “undesirables” but these days I don’t think anyone really cares much. Jews too. Homosexuals as well.

It is, at least, an indication that integration is possible.

There have been factions in the black community for and against an integrated society since Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois. As the OP said, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King fought along similar lines. Integration after the 1960s was often seen as a mixed benefit. While some doors was opened, progress was slow and tokenistic. And open doors meant that the community of black schools, doctors, lawyers, and other separate professionals was decimated since they could be competed against by integration institutions.

Only a utopian shift of attitude in the white community could have given a better outcome, and that was never forthcoming.

I think you’re getting at one of a few central dichotomies that has formed those differing schools of thought about what equality is over the years (and lord knows this board has seen proponents on both sides of it). One thing that has always been fascinating to me is how the underlying issues tend to always be the same, while the battle lines move and reverse and turn inside out and the state of the law is constantly changing. Like here, if racial difference and hostility are natural, then you can argue it stands to reason that government will be inadequate to the task of integrating even the tiniest amount, and will actually only make things worse:

If racial hatred is not natural, and can be influenced by cultural institutions, then formal desegregation efforts are important:

And then when you have a unanimous court that’s so ready to reject the idea of natural racial animus that it won’t even address arguments related to it, then in theory you have an explanation for the unanimous decision in Brown.

But as with all constitutional issues, you can purport to use the same philosophies and get to opposite results pretty easily. The controversial “fact” of natural racial prejudice is now a popular talking point in diversity and inclusion circles, and “the constitution is color-blind” is a popular argument against positive anti-discrimination legislation. So maybe it doesn’t so much matter what you believe about people’s natural tendency to dislike the other, and it only matters what outcome you think represents a desirable one.