Cities, by their very nature, amass people. They bring us close together, cheek by jowl, in teeming crowds; they bless our yearnings for the social. Yet one of the oldest impulses in city design is to drive people apart: to rend the urban fabric into separate and unequal zones, to indulge our just-as-human penchant for distinguishing the ”we” from the “them.” It was not until the 1890s that city-splitters first used the word “segregation” to describe their work, but the impetus to divide cities is as old as cities themselves—in fact, it’s our urban original sin. Just look at Eridu, Mesopotamia’s “urban Eden,” founded seventy centuries ago. The first of all ziggurats came into being there, nothing less than a separate, monumental urban home for the gods, set above and apart from the mortals who thronged the dustier wards below. Eridu’s version of the divine-human boundary likely took thousands of years to solidify as each of the city’s new temples became more foreboding. But the Sumerian ziggurat, and its later analogs the Forbidden City, the teocalli, the royal enclave, the acropolis, the Palatine Hill, cast a shadow upon all cities since. From the outset forward, segregation was a tool of domination and hierarchy, one that as such undercut many of the promises that people have sought in cities: opportunity, equality, commerce, communication, collective action, creativity, safety, and freedom. In the twentieth-century United States (and now many places elsewhere), urban segregation was also intimately linked to the forces of sprawl. The combination threatens what may be the most important urban promise of all. The act of amassing ourselves in the densest, most urbanized slivers of our fragile planet’s surface may be, after all, the only way we will survive as a species.
It’s a long stretch, of course, from Eridu to the endlessness of exurban, Edge City, U.S.A. Only through another of segregation’s paradoxes can we adequately ponder the connection. For, if city-splitting impulses can make any claim at all to universality, it can only be because of their enormous variability. As urban civilizations rose, fell, and rose again across the millennia, so did the basic formulas determining who belonged in the elect districts and who did not. Cities’ outer walls rested up one such genre of segregationism: they divided the urban and the urbane from the rural and the rustic. Local people marked themselves as such by corralling their city’s foreigners into separate compounds. There, out-of-towners became especially useful as scapegoats. Among the many iterations of this nasty trick is the European invention of the Jewish ghetto. Elsewhere, creed, class, caste, clan, craft and even sex could determine urban boundary lines to greater or lesser degrees. Dividing lines were also more penetrable in some places than others. Sometimes, paradoxically again, the porosity of the boundaries was essential to their operation as a tool of domination. How could elites maintain their aloof status, for example, if they did not enroll hundreds of shanty dwellers as domestic servants and provide them quarters in the very heart of the palace?
In all cases, segregationists embraced urban dividing lines because segregation gave them a tool of enhanced power. Divine-right monarchs were the first city-splitters; they were helped by high court intellectuals and priests, and, in other ways, by landowning elites. Divided cities helped such power brokers to establish authoritarian governments, to disseminate official state ideologies, and to hoard wealth. But as a political tool, segregation has always been paradoxical in its own right. No matter how powerful, segregationists also have to expend large quantities of power to put the boundary lines in place. Splitting a city requires huge effort and investment of capital, and it demands specialized tools of its own, designed explicitly for making, unmaking, and remaking urban space. Over the millennia these tools have included monumental architecture (as at Eridu), walls, palisades, battlements, bastions, fences, gates, guard shacks, checkpoints, booms, railroad tracks, highways, tunnels, rivers, inlets, mountainsides and ridges, buffer zones, free-fire zones, demilitarized zones, cordon sanitaires, screens of trees, road blocks, violent mobs, terrorism, the police, armies, curfews, quarantines, pass laws, labor compounds, building clearances, forced removals, restrictive covenants, zoning ordinances, racial steering practices, race-infused economic incentives, segregated private and public housing developments, exclusive residential compounds, gated communities, separate municipal governments and fiscal systems, discriminatory access to land ownership and credit, complementary rural holding zones, influx control laws, and restrictions against overseas immigration. In great part, segregation persisted because segregationists could respond to different times and places by infinitely varying the combinations of these tools.
Signature spaces of this, a new notion of human difference arose: race. By encompassing both scientific universality and political malleability, race gave Western city builders license to do something unprecedented — to stamp a single civilization’s segregationist style on cities spread across every inhabited continent. In a series of wide-reaching historical lurches during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Europeans spread racially divided colonial cities across Asia, the Pacific Rim, Africa, and parts of the Americas. In the process, the signature spaces of the new form of city-splitting proliferated: White Towns, Black Towns, “Asiatic” bazaars, Chinatowns, Native Locations, Black townships, and Black Ghettos. All of the tools used by earlier segregationists were brought to bear, as were new enhanced techniques of class segregation developed in Europe and shipped across oceans and empires to become tools of racial control.
Governments, as in earlier times, were the biggest modern-era racial segregationists. The world-spanning British, French, and American empires account for most of the new urban color lines, though the Belgians, Germans, Italians, and even the Portuguese got in the act as well. Segregation enhanced the prestige and “manifest destiny” of these empires’ “ruling races.” More practical imperial administrators also averred that split cities could minimize headaches involved in disputes between subject peoples with differing legal systems.
A new group of modern-era, globetrotting, semi-independent court-intellectuals also played key roles in the spread of segregation. Race theorists justified Western imperialism as well as the split cities needed to sustain it. Successive generations of peripatetic urban reformers got into the act, too. Public health officials, for example, thought segregation necessary to minimize health threats posed to whites by the inferior races and their poor sanitary habits. Later, housing reformers allowed their slum clearance and public housing schemes to serve segregationist ends. Professionalized urban planners later incorporated segregation into what they called “comprehensive” blueprints for ever more lavish colonial cities.
Another somewhat more anarchic institution also spread through the colonies at the same time: the global capitalist real estate industry. New tools it pioneered, such as London’s land-use covenants in property deeds, could be used to solidify color lines. But the expanded property rights upon which the industry was based could also actually weaken race boundaries in many colonial capitals. There, wealthy Asians or Africans could afford to buy and live in the White Town, and because empires depended on local elite allies, officials sometimes balked at enforcing racial zoning.
Segregation’s variability, backed by the power of empires and their roving experts, nonetheless won out. Urban segregation was central to the first modern empire’s first big undertaking, the British conquest of India. From the first White and Black Town at Madras, to the less successfully divided capital at Calcutta, to the hundred and seventy five segregated “stations” of the British Raj—scattered from Afghanistan to the Malay Peninsula, from the hot military outposts in the plains to the cool “hill stations” in the uplands—racial segregation proved itself in an enormously diverse political, social, economic, religious and geographical terrain. The second surge, associated with the European “opening” of China, brought segregation to places as diverse as Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Yokohama. From there, the concept of the Chinatown sprang across the Pacific, adapting for the first time to the rawer racial politics of white settler colonies, such as those headquartered in San Francisco, Vancouver, Melbourne and Honolulu.
The year 1894 marked the debut of the word segregation as a global political slogan. The occasion was the global plague pandemic that began in Hong Kong and Bombay. There, panicked public health officials yanked Asian victims wholesale from their homes, often to redeposit them in “segregation camps.” Their actions sparked “segregation mania,” the turn-of-the-century frenzy of city-splitting that ensued as the sensational new political catchphrase chased ship-born rats and their plague-infested fleas across the colonial world, eastward to California and westward to the far edge of Africa. In West Africa, the mania also took strength from fervent campaigns targeting urban Africans (especially their children), who were suspected as the prime source of malaria germs carried by the mosquitoes that sent so many white men to their tropical graves.
Professional city planners also entered the business of city-splitting during the period of segregation mania. Backed by lavish imperial investment and power, they resurrected the monumental aspects of city-splitting in their designs for colonial capitals, exemplified above all by Edwin Lutyens’s New Delhi. The plans’ broad avenues, looming palaces, and elaborate racial zoning systems were intended to function as arrogant disquisitions on the contrast between the backward splendor of the East and the cutting-edge progressivism of the West.
The worldwide frenzy of racial city-splitting paradoxically coincided with the rise of its most important global adversary. People of color everywhere began joining the giant tide of loosely interconnected anti-colonial, national liberation and civil rights movements that would soon launch an unprecedented revolution against white supremacy and Western empire. While decolonization did not end urban segregation—for class boundaries had grown more acute in cities everywhere, including in former colonies—it did bring to an end the 250-year tradition of separate White Towns and Black Towns.
The story did not end there, though, for the era of segregation mania also gave birth to two much more robust and radical forms of racial city-splitting, in South Africa and the United States. In both locations, the practice actually gained ground amidst the great mid-twentieth century calls for race equality. South Africa and the US were white settler societies where settlers themselves held unusual commanding positions in politics. They were places where the screaming pitch of white supremacy was sharpened by an opposing sense that white power was especially vulnerable to the “rising tide of color” in their midst, whether the perceived threat of the black majority in South Africa or that of the Great Migration of blacks to US cities. Finally, urban whites in South Africa and the US also possessed a permanent stake in local real estate markets, unlike the peripatetic communities of white officials that formed the majority of whites in most colonial white towns. They were thus susceptible to the self-serving myth that black neighbors brought down the value of nearby property.
This myth tied segregation tightly to racially-infused economic incentives that in turn completely transformed the role of the real estate industry in the politics of city-splitting. From a source of irritation for government-led segregationist planning, the business of buying and selling land became a nearly unstoppable force of urban racial division.
Placing the two “arch-segregationist” societies side by side, another seeming paradox emerges. South Africa, the society that most publicly, unrepentantly, and viciously harnessed city-splitting to the power of government, also took the longest to be successful. Then, it mercifully expired the most quickly; apartheid is, after all, no longer with us. The American system, which by contrast was designed to operate as much as possible outside the fray of politics, not only divided cities with almost as much efficiency as apartheid at its height, it remains alive and well to this day.
The reasons for these differences have a paradoxical ring to them. In South Africa, where black-white politics arose from a matrix of imperial conquest and land dispossession, blacks had virtually no civil, political, or property rights, and, white fears notwithstanding, their resistance movements had relatively little leverage during the era of segregation mania. As a result the British Empire and the Union of South Africa were free to put in place the legislated instruments, such as Native Location laws, compound ordinances, pass laws, and rural reserves, that later became the foundation stones of apartheid. In the US, by contrast, black-white politics proceeded from the regional conflict over slavery and emancipation, which gave the Reconstruction-era Republican Party an incentive to give black men a wider range of rights. These rights were fragile, but they gave black activists far more power than their counterparts possessed in contemporary South Africa. In 1917, a team of lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was able to convince the otherwise largely white supremacist justices of the US Supreme Court to strike down dozens of neighborhood segregation ordinances that had swept through southern and midwestern cities at the height of the mania. In the absence of state power, American whites in many cities turned to their longstanding practice of enforcing neighborhood color lines by street violence. This was in sharp contrast to South Africa, where whites, again, could more plausibly put their faith in government. During World War I and after, violence spiraled out of control in a wave of race riots across the US, capped by a bloody week in Chicago in 1919. An alliance of segregationist urban reformers and real estate agents in that city went back to the drawing board to lay out neighborhood-splitting schemes that operated more quietly.
Starting with racist theories of property values, the Chicago alliance devised an ingenious and many-headed hydra of a segregation system, grafting together restrictive covenants, racial steering, and redlining along with discriminatory implementation of nominally non-racial government instruments such as zoning laws, federal home mortgage guarantees, highway building programs, urban renewal schemes, and public housing projects. These practices did not guarantee fixed color lines in American cities, but they did give whites the option to flee racially changing urban neighborhoods for the wider and more lucrative reaches of the suburbs, thus making the fatal link between segregation and sprawl.
While civil rights activists were able to lop off some of this monster’s heads (restrictive covenants fell in 1948, for example), and though subsequent fair housing laws made much of the beast illegal, segregationists have kept their creation alive, in part by hobbling the federal government’s fair-housing enforcement machinery. As the number of blacks migrating into cities fell off, so did most remaining spurts of white violence. There is no law forbidding white flight, nor one to stop the more recent and smaller, but often equally segregationist, undertow of gentrification. Such racially-inflected dynamics in the private housing market, coupled with ongoing steering, redlining, and devastating bouts of discriminatory predatory lending, continue to quietly guarantee unequal and separate racial spaces in American cities to this day. This beast conduct its work that many Americans are tempted to think of segregation as something “de facto.” It just is; it was never made.
In the world we live in today, segregationists continue to occupy the commanding heights of urban spatial politics. The exact nature of urban dividing lines has been blurred. Race, class, ethnicity, culture, and (most toxically) religion all play interconnected roles, depending on the place. With some notorious exceptions, explicitly segregationist government legislation is no longer the principle coercive force behind the sundering of cities. Instead, most city dividers today use tools that resemble those at work in the many-headed system of the United States. Far from “informal” or “voluntary” (let alone “de facto”), such tools, embedded above all in the real estate and financial industries, pack plenty of coercive institutional force. They also benefit from an aura of plausible deniability that probably even more crucially explains their political longevity.
All that said, there is a final, bittersweet paradox to the global history of urban segregation. As powerful as these forces are, our age is also blessed with more knowledge about the devastating effects of segregation than any in previous human history. We also have more knowledge than ever about ways to create open, egalitarian, and empowering urban spaces and communities: the French “anti-ghetto” laws; the scrappy, anti-segregationist grassroots community organizations of the US; the shanty-and-shack-dwellers associations of the Global South; and the UN Global Forum contain conversations that all city-lovers and city planners should listen to carefully. Only by helping to elaborate such visions can we wean ourselves from our seventy-century-old habit of dividing—and impoverishing—our species’ most promising form of habitat.