What Is De Jure Segregation? Definition and Examples

Noble Bradford Removes Segregation Sign
(Original Caption) 4/25/1956-Dallas,Texas: Noble Bradford, lead worker in the Dallas Transit Company body shop, removes a segregation seating sign from the rear of the bus here, April 25th. The company, complying with a Supreme Court ruling banning racial segregation on public transportation within the borders of a state, announced that it was ending passenger segregation in the 530 buses at once.

Bettmann / Getty Images

De jure segregation is the legally allowed or enforced separation of groups of people. The Latin phrase “de jure” literally means “according to the law.” The Jim Crow Laws of the U.S. southern states from the late 1800s into the 1960s and the South African apartheid laws that separated blacks from whites from 1948 to 1990 are examples of de jure segregation. While typically associated with race, de jure segregation has existed—and still exists today—in other areas, such as gender and age.

Key Takeaways: De Jure Segregation

  • De jure segregation is the potentially discriminatory separation of groups of people according to government-enacted laws.
  • Laws creating cases of de jure segregation are often repealed or overturned by superior courts.
  • De jure segregation differs from de facto segregation, which is segregation that occurs as matter of fact, circumstances, or personal choice. 

De Jure Segregation Definition 

De jure segregation refers specifically to potentially discriminatory segregation imposed or allowed by government-enacted laws, regulations, or accepted public policy. While they are created by their governments, instances of de jure segregation in most constitutionally governed nations, like the United States, may be repealed by legislation or overturned by the superior courts. 

The clearest example of de jure segregation in the United States were the state and local Jim Crow Laws that enforced racial segregation in the post-Civil War South. One such law enacted in Florida declared, “All marriages between a white person and a negro, or between a white person and a person of negro descent to the fourth generation inclusive, are hereby forever prohibited.” All such laws prohibiting interracial marriage were eventually ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the 1967 case of Loving v. Virginia.

While the courts typically end cases of de jure segregation, they have also allowed them to continue. For example, in the 1875 case of Minor v. Happersett, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the states could forbid women from voting. In the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, the Supreme Court declared parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional, including the prohibition of racial discrimination in inns, public transportation, and places of public assembly. “It would be running the slavery argument into the ground to make it apply to every act of discrimination which a person may see fit to make as to guests he will entertain, or as to the people he will take into his coach or cab or car; or admit to his concert or theater, or deal with in other matters of intercourse or business,” stated the Court’s decision.

Today, a form of de jure segregation called “exclusionary zoning” has been used to prevent minorities from moving into the middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. These city ordinances limit the number of available affordable housing units by banning multi-family dwellings or setting large minimum lot sizes. By raising the cost of housing, these ordinances make it less likely that lower-income groups will move in. 

De Facto vs. De Jure Segregation 

While de jure segregation is created and enforced by law, de facto segregation (“in fact”) occurs as a matter of factual circumstances or personal choice.

For example, despite the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibited racial discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing, white inner-city residents who chose not to live among persons of color moved to higher-priced suburbs. Known as “white flight,” this form of de facto segregation effectively created separate white and black neighborhoods.

Today, the difference between de jure and de facto segregation is most obvious in public schools. Though intentional de jure racial segregation of schools was banned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the fact that school enrollment is often based on how far students live from the school means that some schools remain de facto segregated today. For example, an inner-city school may have 90% black students and 10% of students of other races. Since its large number of black students is due to the school district’s mainly black population—rather than any action of the school district—this is a case of de facto segregation.

Other Types of De Jure Segregation

As the legally imposed separation of any group of people, de jure segregation is not limited to cases of racial discrimination. Today, it is more often seen in areas such as gender and age. 

De Jure Gender Segregation

Men and women have long been separated by law in prisons and public restrooms, as well as in law enforcement and military settings. In the U.S. military, for example, women were until recently blocked by law from serving in combat roles, and men and women are still typically housed separately. Under the Military Selective Service Act of 1948, only young men must register for the draft. This male-only draft restriction has often been challenged in court, and on February 25, 2019, a federal judge in Texas ruled that it violated the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The government is expected to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. 

In less obvious occupational examples, laws may require that hospitals hire only female nurses to care for female patients, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is required by law to hire female officers to perform body searches on female airline passengers.  

De Jure Age Segregation

While the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects job applicants and employees 40 years of age and older from discrimination in many areas of employment, de jure age segregation is found in the area of allowed and mandatory retirement ages. The ADEA specifically allows state and local governments to set minimum retirement ages for their employees to as young as 55. Mandatory retirement ages are often legally imposed on state and local judges, and many law enforcement jobs have mandatory maximum hiring ages.

In the private sector, the Fair Treatment for Experienced Pilots Act of 2007 increased the mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots from age 60 to 65. 

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