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Amdt14.S1. Overview of Segregation in Other Contexts

Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

While school desegregation cases are perhaps the best known examples of the Supreme Court’s treatment of racial segregation under the Equal Protection Clause, the Court has struck down forced separation based on race in many other contexts. Indeed, the Court struck down several segregation laws before its landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which effectively brought to a close the “separate but equal” precedent the Court had established in its 1896 decision Plessy v. Ferguson.1 In most of these racial segregation cases, the parties disputed whether various levels of state involvement in private discrimination amounted to state action.

While Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), is frequently described as having overruled Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), Brown’s language is more limited, providing only that “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” Brown, 347 U.S. at 495. In Brown, the Court distinguished potentially conflicting case law as not addressing Brown’s ultimate holding, stating: “[I]n Cumming v. County Board of Education, 175 U.S. 528 (1899), and Gong Lum v. Rice, 275 U.S. 78 (1927), the validity of the doctrine [of ‘separate but equal’ in public education] itself was not challenged.” Id. at 491. Instead, the Court addressed Plessy expressly in Bob Jones Univ. v. United States, 461 U.S. 574 (1983), recognizing Brown’s significance for Plessy. The Bob Jones Court stated: “But there can no longer be any doubt that racial discrimination in education violates deeply and widely accepted views of elementary justice. Prior to 1954, public education in many places still was conducted under the pall of Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896); racial segregation in primary and secondary education prevailed in many parts of the country. . . . This Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), signalled an end to that era. Over the past quarter of a century, every pronouncement of this Court and myriad Acts of Congress and Executive Orders attest a firm national policy to prohibit racial segregation and discrimination in public education. An unbroken line of cases following Brown establishes beyond doubt this Court’s view that racial discrimination in education violates a most fundamental national public policy, as well as rights of individuals.” Bob Jones, 461 U.S. at 592–93. back