During the 1890s, the word segregation became the preferred term for the practice of coercing different groups of people, especially those designated by race, to live in separate and unequal urban residential neighborhoods. In the southern states of the United States, segregationists imported the word—originally used in the British colonies of Asia—to describe Jim Crow laws, and, in 1910, whites in Baltimore passed a “segregation ordinance” mandating separate black and white urban neighborhoods. Copy-cat legislation sprang up in cities across the South and the Midwest. But in 1917, a multiracial team of lawyers from the fledgling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) mounted a successful legal challenge to these ordinances in the U.S. Supreme Court—even as urban segregation laws were adopted in other places in the world, most notably in South Africa. The collapse of the movement for legislated racial segregation in the United States occurred just as African Americans began migrating in large numbers into cities in all regions of the United States, resulting in waves of anti-black mob violence. Segregationists were forced to rely on nonstatutory or formally nonracial techniques. In Chicago, an alliance of urban reformers and real estate professionals invented alternatives to explicitly racist segregation laws. The practices they promoted nationwide created one of the most successful forms of urban racial segregation in world history, rivaling and finally outliving South African apartheid. Understanding how this system came into being and how it persists today requires understanding both how the Chicago segregationists were connected to counterparts elsewhere in the world and how they adapted practices of city-splitting to suit the peculiarities of racial politics in the United States.
Thomas J. Sugrue
Racism in the United States has long been a national problem, not a regional phenomenon. The long and well-documented history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and racial violence in the South overshadows the persistent reality of racial discrimination, systemic segregation, and entrenched inequality north of the Mason-Dixon line. From the mid-19th century forward, African Americans and their allies mounted a series of challenges to racially separate schools, segregated public accommodations, racially divided workplaces, endemic housing segregation, and discriminatory policing. The northern civil rights movement expanded dramatically in the aftermath of the Great Migration of blacks northward and the intensification of segregation in northern hotels, restaurants, and theaters, workplaces, housing markets, and schools in the early 20th century. During the Great Depression and World War II, emboldened civil rights organizations engaged in protest, litigation, and lobbying efforts to undermine persistent racial discrimination and segregation. Their efforts resulted in legal and legislative victories against racially separate and unequal institutions, particularly workplaces and stores. But segregated housing and schools remained more impervious to change. By the 1960s, many black activists in the North grew frustrated with the pace of change, even as they succeeded in increasing black representation in elected office, in higher education, and in certain sectors of the economy. In the late 20th century, civil rights activists launched efforts to fight the ongoing problem of police brutality and the rise of the prison-industrial complex. And they pushed, mostly through the courts, for the protection of the fragile gains of the civil rights era. The black freedom struggle in the North remained incomplete in the face of ongoing segregation, persistent racism, and ongoing racial inequality in employment, education, income, and wealth.
When Chicago teachers went on strike in 2012, they highlighted an emergent militance among teachers in the United States. Led by the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), the Chicago Teacher Union (CTU) in the 2010s sought to use the collective bargaining process not only to fight for better salaries and working conditions, but also to dramatically improve the lives of their students through racial justice initiatives and more services such as school nurses and social workers. Other big city unions, some in dialogue with the CTU through the United Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (UCORE), embarked on similar campaigns. Elsewhere, teachers staged state-wide walkouts. In February 2018, teachers in all of West Virginia’s fifty-five counties went on strike to protest stagnant pay and escalating healthcare costs. Their efforts, which forced a Republican legislature to substantially increase education spending, inspired similar red-state walkouts in the months that followed. Strikes in Oklahoma and Arizona also won major funding hikes, for example. Then, in early 2019, militant teachers walked out in Los Angeles, Oakland, and Denver, and in the fall, the CTU was on strike again, this time with even broader demands than in 2012. Another year of militance might have occurred in 2020, but the global COVID-19 pandemic forced school districts and unions to focus on the immediate public health crisis. Unions pivoted to demanding that districts maintain protocols to ensure teachers, students, and their families were kept safe from the virus.