What Is De Facto Segregation? Definition and Current Examples

Urban Downtown Miami Cityscape with Graffiti and Skyscrappers
Gentrification is a modern example of de facto segregation.

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De facto segregation is the separation of people that occurs “by fact,” rather than by legally imposed requirements. For example, in medieval England, people were customarily segregated by social class or status. Often driven by fear or hate, de facto religious segregation existed in Europe for centuries. In the United States today, the high concentration of African-Americans in certain neighborhoods sometimes results in public schools with mostly black students, despite laws prohibiting intentional racial segregation of schools. 

Key Takeaways: De Facto Segregation

  • De facto segregation is separation of groups that happens because of fact, circumstances, or customs. 
  • De facto segregation differs from de jure segregation, which is imposed by law. 
  • Today, de facto segregation is most often seen in the areas of housing and public education.

De Facto Segregation Definition

De facto segregation is the separation of groups that happens even though it is not required or sanctioned by law. Rather than an intentionally legislated effort to separate the groups, de facto segregation is the result of custom, circumstance, or personal choice. So-called urban “white flight” and neighborhood “gentrification” are two modern examples. 

In the white flight de facto segregation of the 1960s and ‘70s, millions of whites who chose not to live among blacks left urban areas for the suburbs. The satirical phrase “There goes the neighborhood” reflected the fear of white homeowners that the value of their property would fall as black families moved in. 

Today, as more minorities move to the suburbs themselves, many whites are either moving back into the cities or to new “exurbs” built beyond the existing suburbs. This reverse white flight often results in another type of de facto segregation called gentrification. 

Gentrification is the process of renovating urban neighborhoods by an influx of more affluent residents. In practice, as wealthier people flow back into once-low-income neighborhoods, longtime minority residents are forced out by higher rents and property taxes based on higher home values.

De Facto vs. De Jure Segregation

In contrast to de facto segregation, which happens as a matter of fact, de jure segregation is the separation of groups of people imposed by law. For example, the Jim Crow laws legally separated black and white people in almost all aspects of life throughout the southern United States from the 1880s to 1964. 

De jure segregation can breed de facto segregation. While the government can prohibit most forms of de jure segregation, it cannot change people’s hearts and minds. If groups simply don’t want to live together, they are free to choose not to do so. The aforementioned “white flight” segregation illustrates this. Even though the Civil Rights Act of 1968 banned most forms of racial discrimination in housing, white residents simply chose to move to the suburbs rather than live with black residents.

De Facto Segregation in Schools and Other Current Examples

The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the 1954 case of Brown vs. Board of Education, coupled with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, effectively banned de jure segregation in education. However, de facto racial segregation continues to divide many of America’s public school systems today. 

Since school district assignment depends partly on where students live, cases of de facto segregation can happen. Families usually prefer that their children attend schools near their homes. While this can have positive effects, such as convenience, and safety, it can also result in a lower quality of education in minority neighborhood schools. With school budgets dependent on property taxes, lower-income, often minority neighborhoods, tend to have inferior schools with inferior facilities. In addition, more experienced teachers choose to teach in better-funded schools in more affluent white neighborhoods. While school districts are allowed to—and sometimes do—consider racial balance in their school assignment process, they are not required by law to do so. 

Though federal laws and Supreme Court decisions protect against discrimination based on gender, de facto segregation based on biological sex is commonplace. De facto sex segregation is the voluntary separation of men and women occurring as a matter of personal choice according to generally-accepted social and cultural norms. De facto sex segregation is most commonly found in settings like private clubs, interest-based membership organizations, professional sports teams, religious organizations, and private recreational facilities. 

Sources and Further Reference