Plessy v. Ferguson and the Legacy of "Separate but Equal" After 125 Years

February 17, 2021

The notorious Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson made state-sanctioned racial segregation the law of the land in the United States in 1896. While the Civil Rights movement and subsequent Supreme Court decisions in the twentieth century did much to mitigate its effects, its consequences reverberate in ways large and small today. This special volume of RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences revisits the legacy of the decision on its 125th anniversary to consider the connection between constitutionally imposed segregation, institutionalized white supremacy, and enduring racial inequality. Edited by john a. powell (University of California, Berkeley), Samuel L. Myers (University of Minnesota), and Susan T. Gooden (Virginia Commonwealth University) – eminent scholars in constitutional law, economics, and public administration respectively – the volume includes contributions from an interdisciplinary roster of experts, each offering fresh insights on the doctrine of “Separate but Equal” as it relates to citizenship, colorism, and civil rights in the United States.

The contributors grapple with a central overarching question: How is it that a court decision from 125 years ago still has such an enduring impact on racial disparities? john a. powell provides a nuanced overview of the legal context of the case to show that segregation was not only about separating people by race but was primarily about preserving White supremacy. The wide latitude for judicial interpretation granted to judges means that who decides matters, and today, just as much as in 1896, the justices sitting on the Supreme Court matter. If the views of Justice Harlan – the lone dissenter in Plessy – had prevailed, U.S. jurisprudence would look very different today.

Thomas J. Davis discusses how control over personal identity lay at the heart of Plessy, and how its denial of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms reverberates today. From sex and marriage to adoption, gender recognition, employment, and voting, persistent discrimination turns in various degrees on state authority to define, categorize, and deny freedom of personal identity. To ensure personal autonomy in such domains requires the continual reevaluation of U.S. law to recognize the freedom of individuals to define and express their own identities.

Looking at enduring educational impact of “Separate but Equal,” which was not entirely rectified by the 1954 decision outlawing school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, Dania V. Francis and William A. Darity, Jr., link today’s ongoing within-school segregation to the legacy of racialized tracking born from White resistance to desegregation. They demonstrate how a short-term, concerted effort to increase the number of Black high school students taking advanced courses could lead to long-term benefits in closing the educational achievement gap and eliminating institutionalized segregation within our schools.

Plessy rightfully stands as one of the continuing stains on the history of our country in its ambivalence and unwillingness to address White dominance. This issue of RSF both corrects and expands the narrative around the Plessy decision, and provides important lessons for addressing the nation’s continuing racial travails. It is ideal for use by scholars, community leaders, and policy makers alike.

This issue of RSF is copublished with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

john a. powell is the Robert D. Haas Chancellor’s Chair in Equity and Inclusion, and director of the Othering & Belonging Institute, University of California, Berkeley.

Samuel L. Myers, Jr. is Roy Wilkins Professor of Human Relations and Social Justice, Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota

Susan T. Gooden is dean and professor at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, Virginia Commonwealth University.

Read the full open-access issue for free here.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


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