separate but equal

  1. pertaining to a racial policy, formerly practiced in some parts of the United States, by which Black people could be segregated if granted equal opportunities and facilities, as for education, transportation, or jobs.

word story For separate but equal

The phrase separate but equal describes the legal philosophy that underpinned institutional racial segregation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and is most associated with two U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
The first case, Plessy v. Ferguson, in 1896 upheld the legality of the segregation of public facilities, so long as equivalent facilities were provided for each racial group, which in practice was seldom the case. Based on this ruling, state and local governments legally enforced the racial segregation of public spaces, including public schools, in the early 20th century. But in 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down racial segregation in public schools in the second case, Brown v. Board of Education. The Court found that separate facilities were inherently unequal, and ordered school districts to desegregate.

Words Nearby separate but equal Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2024

Cultural definitions for separate but equal

separate but equal

The doctrine that racial segregation is constitutional as long as the facilities provided for blacks and whites are roughly equal. This doctrine was long used to support segregation in the public schools and a variety of public facilities, such as transportation and restaurants, where the facilities and services for blacks were often clearly inferior. For decades, the Supreme Court refused to rule the separate but equal doctrine unconstitutional, on the grounds that such civil rights issues were the responsibility of the states. In the decision of Brown versus Board of Education, in 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled separate but equal schools unconstitutional. This ruling was followed by several civil rights laws in the 1960s. (See also Plessy versus Ferguson.)

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Other Idioms and Phrases with separate but equal

separate but equal

Relating to or affected by a policy whereby two groups may be segregated if they are given equal facilities and opportunities. For example, They've divided up the physical education budget so that the girls' teams are separate but equal to the boys. This idiom comes from a Louisiana law of 1890, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, “requiring all railway companies carrying passengers on their trains in this state, to provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races.” Subsequently it was widely used to separate African-Americans from the white population through a general policy of racial segregation. In 1954, in a unanimous ruling to end school segregation, the Supreme Court finally overturned the law (in Brown v. Board of Education).

The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.