Encapsulated Lives: The Aims of Racial Segregation

People are universally required to rationalize the relationship between the foreground and background of life so that they can go about dealing with their activities as a set of purposes not too often interrupted by items in the background of life, as happens when, let us say, people step into dog do-do when they are emerging, elegantly dressed, from a limo. One way to do that to create a stable equilibrium whereby the arena of background matters is put on hold by segregating them from the foreground events, though this may be at the cost of a heightened anxiety about the ability to maintain the truce. The lives of one group is encapsulated so that the members of that group can keep in the foreground what matters to them. An easy example of this is a retirement community. It provides physical security and other amenities that will appeal to old people who are becoming fragile so that they can go on with what seems to them a more or less normal set of activities even if these are somewhat more restricted than the lives that were led when people were living in “normal” communities. There are vans to take you from one place to another, to concerts and to downtown; there are walking trails so one can follow one’s doctor’s orders to exercise; there are small supermarkets so that one does not have to deal with the hustle and bustle of the outside world to get one’s shopping done. Political lectures and folk singers are brought “on campus”. All this is done so as to make life as stable for as long as possible before a resident is moved into the even more secure area of a nursing home.  

The logic of encapsulating one’s life in a residence or village for seniors is that one enters such a community when one does not need all its features as of yet in the prospect of having to use more and more of these features for keeping the intrusion of frailty at bay and that one exits the community when even the amenities are not enough to allow a person to  continue with a normal seeming round of life. You attend a book club until you no longer have the ability to attend to reading or engage in discussions. But while it lasts, that is one substitute for having a job or a set of obligations that must be met.

Age segregated communities are not the only examples of gated communities, most of which do not actually need gates to keep them secure for their residents. An ethnic neighborhood has similar characteristics, though it is not a matter of age but a putatively shared ancestry and set of customs having to do with religion, diet and courtship and child raising. People in an ethnic community share a notion of what a fulfilling life would be, whether that means joining the fire department or heading off to college to become an accountant or a doctor. They know what it means to court a respectable girl, however one has sowed one’s wild oats. They share a sense of what to be proud of in the lives of their children, or where to set the bar: for some ethnic communities only a professional class career will spell success and in others keeping mostly out of jail. People in working class communities try to drown out the background of gunshots and crime and ne’er do well relatives. They keep their eyes on the main prize, whatever that might be in that milieu. Upton Sinclair shows, in “The Jungle”, what it would be like if the rest of the world intruded enough to interrupt a wedding by not making the customary cash gifts that would pay for the wedding and so leave the newly married couple in the hole, their lives now set on a trajectory for failure because they had counted on their world to hold itself together so that just a few cheapskates would not ruin their lives, only be sources of some resentment in the future. Inadvertent lapses are held to a minimum in a segregated community.

The most significant example of encapsulation as a way to sustain a community’s way of life is racial segregation as that was practiced in the American South from the beginning of the Seventeenth Century to the middle of the Twentieth Century, a period of some 350 years. That is a long enough time to belie the idea that racial segregation was the temporary imposition of a more powerful people upon a subservient people and sure to crack up before too much time had passed. Indeed, the encapsulation was not even ended by the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War. Segregation was soon enough reimposed by Jim Crow laws that came into effect a mere twenty years after the end of the Civil War.

Encapsulation does not work simply for the purposes of keeping the subservient population from gaining political power or rebelling. It has those consequences too, and indeed Ante-Bellum Southerners were continually worrying about slave rebellions. More centrally, it was the basis for making sure that the white community would be able to continue on with its own purposes while its servant class remained not just subservient but also “invisible” in the sense of being thrust into the background of consciousness. The point of having Black people get off the sidewalk into the gutter when a white man passed was not just to symbolize subservience but to make the Black person not as obtrusive as would be the case if the Black person shared the sidewalk. Only in such fashion might white people keep out of their minds the perception that, in fact, there were more Blacks in their communities than there were white people. That was alright so long as the Black folk counted no more than dogs in the street. Mary Chesnut, writing at the time of the Civil War, makes the at the time common observation that some of the light skinned slaves looked very much like their masters and like the master’s white children, but that was to be disregarded as not a topic for polite conversation.

As Freehling observes, a main tool for keeping the slaves in their place was cuffing them about sufficiently so that they would look and sound complacent about their lives, and so no threat to rebel. But the cost was perpetual mistrust because there was no getting around the fact that the apparent acceptance of their slavery was only the result of them being cuffed and so nothing to rely on. Yet the appearance of compliance was all the master class could be sure of.

Theorists, however, made quite a point out of this function of slavery as providing the manpower that allowed a democratic white society to go about its business, to pursue commerce, the arts, courtship and politics. Without slavery,  Fitzhugh’s “Sociology for the South” argued in 1854, there could be no white commonwealth. This was a permanent feature of the social landscape, the slaves the enablers of white life every bit as much if not more so than the servant class in England were the enablers of aristocratic life. Both societies existed without the availability of other than human labor saving devices. The vacuum cleaner ended the need for the subservient class every bit as much as the invention of the cotton picking machine.

The key question about encapsulation therefore becomes what were the mechanisms for insuring that the dross which was Black life was kept from intruding upon white consciousness, how it was kept in the background. This was done through a disdain for Blacks and Black life, by distinguishing respectable customs from those practiced by a “degenerate” race, and by enforcing the division between Blacks and whites through repeated uses of terror. It would be a mistake, therefore, to regard a regime of white superiority as the result of “prejudice”, which is an attitude of disdain, even though that is the concept which has been rolled out to explain race relations ever since the Forties. Prejudice, however, is the result rather than the cause of the structure for making black lives recede in the awareness of whites. The slaveholders and the segregationists who followed were prejudiced but only in that they thought that the natural order separated out Blacks as inevitably a subservient class. They would deny they held animosity towards Blacks, only a sense that the world was divided into two types of people and any attempts to overthrow that were forbidden by natural law or by the Bible. It may be difficult to recreate the mindset whereby the separation of the races was inevitable even if it could to some extent be modified so that it was less cruel, though it should be remembered that a reform of slavery or Jim Crow was never on the agenda of white Southerners until they were pressed in the Forties to build some more schools for Black students so as to justify the continued segregation of those students.

          The real issue is whether subjugation so as to provide servants who are servile is so important that all other values are to be put aside. What would happen to social life if Blacks moved to the foreground? It is like asking what one would do without charity wards where young doctors could hone their skills before dealing with patients who could pay. It took a revolution in how medical treatment was paid for, through insurance rather than out of pocket, for charity wards to no longer be required to perform their function. It took the Civil Rights Movement to make the South realize that it could function and indeed prosper if it were deprived of the crutch of Jim Crow. Race was not needed as a supplement to social class to keep people in their place.