Segregation is the action of separating people, historically on the basis of race and/or gender. Segregation implies the physical separation of people in everyday activities, in professional life, and in the exercise of civil rights.

The European Commission defines segregation as “the act by which a (natural or legal) person separates other persons on the basis of race, color, language, religion, nationality or national or ethnic origin without an objective and reasonable justification.”

Segregation can exist de jure (in law) or de facto (in practice). De jure segregation in the United States was based on laws against miscegenation (i.e. interracial marriages; see Loving v. Virginia) and laws against hiring people of the targeted ethnicity for jobs. After the abolition of slavery by the promulgation of the Thirteenth Amendment, racial discrimination in the southern United States was governed by Jim Crow laws that imposed strict segregation of the "races."

In Plessy v. Ferguson, rendered on May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court authorized Southern states to impose racial segregation by law, provided that the conditions offered to the various "racial" groups by such segregation were equal, a doctrine known as "separate but equal”. This de jure segregation continued until the 1960s.

In Brown v. Board of Education (Brown I) rendered on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court held racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment even though the service rendered therein was claimed to be of "equal quality". The ruling in Brown I did not list or specify a particular method or way of how to proceed in ending racial segregation in schools, the Court's ruling in Brown II (1955) demanded states to desegregate "with all deliberate speed." These cases acted as the end of the “separate but equal” doctrine in the United States. 

[Last updated in March of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]