We often think of South Africa or America when we hear the word 'segregation.' Or -- a popular view -- that social groups have always chosen to live apart.But as Carl H. Nightingale
shows in his new book, Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities
(University of Chicago Press, 2012), the racial phenomenon is both modern and international. To be sure, laws and informal practices separating individuals by membership in a caste can be found everywhere in the ancient and medieval world. Those with or seeking wealth and power have always sought to preserve or increase their position by disuniting people on the grounds of social category. Yet the idea of "race" and the enduring belief that human beings can be distinguished in such terms has its origins in the rise of European colonialism, starting with British rule in Madras (Chennai) and the East India Company's decision to split Calcutta (Kolkata) into "White Town" and "Black Town." The word 'segregation' itself comes from techniques used in Hong Kong and Bombay (Mumbai) in the 1890's, part of a viral "mania" that, Nightingale explains, pivoted around the challenges of mass urbanization and sent the institution north, south, east, and west -- even to Latin American cities like Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, where the distinction between 'white' and 'black' was murky at best.
This globalization depended heavily on imperialist governments, and often just as importantly relied on multinational corporations (real estate especially) and intellectual networks, which provided in the first case institutional precedent and protocol and in the second rationalization and legitimacy for the pseudo-scientific notion of 'race.' Yet, as this ambitious work demonstrates, segregation appeared under every form of government, with and without the help of capitalism. The line betweende facto
and de jure
was often hard to tell or irrelevant. (One might note here, for example, that, contrary to popular belief, most businesses in the Old South were not forced by law to put up those 'Whites Only' signs.)
Indeed, there is more than a bit of paradox and irony in this tragic story. And while the late 1900's saw the rise of powerful movements opposed to segregation, the world's population is now majority-urban for the first time, and still lives with these awful legacies. Attempts to rollback segregation will have to grapple with this complex and global history. Thankfully, Nightingale has given us a very useful starting point.