Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access

From The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives, which will be published this month by Verso.

The everyday life of the segregation era is not much discussed outside academia. More attention is given to large events—court decisions, laws, protests—and to the heroism of the movement, the horror of extraordinary racist militants, lynchings, bombings, and the murders of civil-rights activists. Missing from these discussions is a sense of how the segregationist regime was held together, what practical purposes it served. It is identified with abstractions like prejudice, bigotry, racism, and an eternal white supremacy—which tell us nothing about how the order operated, how its official and unofficial protocols organized people’s lives.

What those without intimate knowledge of the regime are left with is a vague sense of the bad old days when bigots and bigotry reigned. That impression obscures the most basic truth of the white-supremacist South: it was a coherent social order, constructed and maintained by specific social interests through political and economic institutions that channeled the experience of everyone in the region. Even the familiar imagery of separate water fountains, lunch counters, and restrooms feeds misunderstanding by representing those features as the summary reality of segregation. Although its intent is usually the opposite, this picture of the Jim Crow era reduces segregation to its most superficial artifacts, to the tip of the iceberg.

It also encourages two apparently opposite misunderstandings. On one side is the view that simplistically celebrates the defeat of the segregationist regime as the defeat of entrenched inequality, which shares the same genus as the contentions that Barack Obama’s election demonstrated that the country was “post-racial.” On the other hand, a view expressed more and more commonly as the era recedes in time contends that the civil-rights movement’s victories were trivial. An extension of this view, which was retailed by Malcolm X and other black nationalists, is that the struggle against segregation was misdirected, that fighting to desegregate lunch counters and restrooms, for example, reflected a demeaning presumption that black people needed proximity to whites for validation. The problem, we hear with disturbing frequency and emphatic self-confidence, in particular from younger people, was not the principle of “separate but equal” but the fact that it wasn’t honestly enforced. These contentions fundamentally misunderstand the reality of Jim Crow.

Separate never was intended to be equal. The sole purpose of the segregationist regime, which did not take shape until the 1890s and early 1900s, was to enforce black subordination as a virtue on its own as well as an instrument for other ends.

The relatively superficial mechanisms of enforcement—the petty apartheid of Jim Crow take-out windows at restaurants, separate water fountains, toilets, etc.—were never trivial to those who endured them on a daily basis. They were never less than massively inconvenient and humiliating. And everyone understood that they were inseparably linked to a larger system that included denial of due process and equal protection under the law, and the extremes of economic exploitation made possible by the elimination of citizenship rights. “Separate but equal” was never more than a paper-thin ruse to support the fiction that this system did not violate black people’s constitutional rights.

People who are oppressed know it—by definition. It strains logic to imagine how one could not notice being brutalized, demeaned, and denied effective recourse. A crucial error made by exuberant radicals since the Sixties, at least, has been assuming that their discovery of exploitation and oppression must also be fresh news to the more beleaguered victims. The Black Panther Party’s dogma that political mobilization required demonstrating the reign of police terror in urban Bantustans, or the conviction that black Americans needed to be told that they were black, are only striking cases in point. This is why their exhortations and preachments are so commonly met with bemused responses. They self-righteously announce the obvious and offer only unthinkably remote, millennial routes to justice like “revolution” or “unity” or, now, “reparations.”

It would be absurd to suggest that black Southerners could have been blind to the fundamental injustice of a system of inequality as blunt and up-front as the Jim Crow order, which infiltrated and shaped every interaction. Yet people make daily life under any conditions—even maximum-security prisons, military occupation, or chattel slavery. We devise local systems of meaning, and practices to cement them, so as to enable us to find dignity and worth and solace and respite. Even the weak and powerless have tacit awareness of the fundamental injustice that shapes all social interactions.

Class differences among black people were particularly meaningful in efforts to escape white authority. Middle-class people were better able to create buffers between themselves and their families and the worst, most dangerous features of Jim Crow. The more common black experience was dominated by extreme financial insecurity, jobs marked by arbitrary or brutal discipline, income that could afford little better than a hand-to-mouth existence, and dangerous conditions of employment with no prospects for improvement or advancement. Public institutions designated for blacks were woefully underfunded, and all separate facilities for blacks were designed to be markedly inferior. In plantation districts, the school year was often truncated to fit the cycles of the cotton crop.

Middle-class, “respectable” black people sought as much as possible to insulate themselves and their children from contact with those they considered to be class inferiors. An elaborate structure of social clubs—for example, the Links and the Girl Friends for women, the Boulé for men, Jack and Jill for children, and fraternity and sorority chapters for students and alumni—evolved to create and sustain homogeneous middle-class social networks locally and nationally. Segregation did have a leveling effect within the race. Those with higher status were forced to share neighborhoods, schools, and often churches, restaurants, and other public entertainments with those they’d prefer not to associate with. From the system’s beginnings, a complaint about the injustice of enforced segregation was that it didn’t account for class distinctions among black people.

Middle-class black people were better able than others to shield themselves from both the everyday indignities and the atrocities of the Jim Crow world. And their social status and economic position typically derived from occupying niches that were provided by and that accommodated the segregationist order. The principal sources of middle-class status and relative economic security came from jobs in the segregated institutions whose main purpose was to give a façade to the lie of “separate but equal.” We were all unequal, but some were more unequal and unprotected than others. And these differences in social position would prove to have significant impact on the shaping of black politics after the segregationist regime’s demise and, therefore, on the character of the new Southern politics that has emerged in its aftermath.

| View All Issues |

February 2022

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now