Segregation was never good for black people. We were not better off during Jim Crow. Not even a little bit. Those who wax nostalgically about how we thrived during segregation and leveraged it to our economic advantage to support and sustain healthy, strong black communities are just straight-up wrong.
We need to stop romanticizing life for African Americans before integration. The overwhelming majority of black people were trapped in abject poverty (or at best, a fragile subsistence), locked out of nearly every profession or industry where they could gain access to significant income and wealth, regardless of their level of education or social-economic status. We were also excluded from Wall Street and other centers of capital and investment. (In fact, for much of America’s history prior to integration, not only could we not acquire stock and commodities—we were counted as livestock ourselves). As recently as the 1950s, the rare African American with a Ph.D. could hope for no better than a job as a teacher or minister.
And the great black entrepreneurs in the age of segregation operated with absolutely zero legal protection or civil rights, essentially deprived of any legal means of protecting their assets/wealth. Laws both civil and criminal were set up so that white people could take property, money, land, etc. from black people with impunity. And what they couldn’t take, they would destroy—the devastating 1921 race riot that destroyed Tulsa, Oklahoma’s “Black Wall Street” is the best known, but far from the only example of this truth. Countless black people, including (maybe especially) the educated and relatively wealthy—including many WWI veterans who tasted freedom in Europe—were lynched (concurrent with the establishment and rise of the Ku Klux Klan) in order to eliminate them as a source of economic competition and as a way to use terror to keep blacks “in their place.”
The vast majority of people who talk today about how much better off black people were during segregation have lived most, if not all of their lives, in the post-segregation era. I’ve interviewed many people who actually lived through Jim Crow segregation (most are now in their 80s or 90s or older), including my late grandfather, who died at age 97 in 2008 less than six months before Barack Obama was elected to the U.S. presidency. I can’t remember any of them wishing to go back to the way things were during segregation. Today, we operate with unequal protection and access as black people; they operated with zero protection and access. If any of us black people born after 1960 were magically transported back to 1921, 1931 or even 1951, most of us wouldn’t last a month.
To those who correctly point out that circumstances are not substantially better for African Americans since integration than they were during segregation: What did you expect? Just how easy did you think this was going to be?
It has been only 54 years since the 1964 Civil Rights Act; the system we are fighting to change and recover from (including the trauma and damage to our own psyches and self image) took centuries to create. Expecting dramatic change in less than a lifetime, and then saying segregation was better, is exactly the mindset of the escaped slave—freezing, starving, in the dark scary woods with barking hounds on his trail, and no guarantee that he won’t be caught, tortured and maybe even killed—thinking he was safer and happier as a slave back on the plantation.
We want our freedom fast and easy, with no suffering and no casualties. That’s just not how this works. Integration may not be the answer, but there was no way to go forward without it. Segregation was a dead end (if not a prelude to near extinction, the dilemma Native Americans faced), at best.
No matter how much we struggle with injustice and racism today, our better is in pushing forward, not going back to a nostalgic, selectively imagined, segregated past.
Editor’s Note: Opinion pieces are solely the opinions of the author and not representative of Black Enterprise.