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Racial Segregation: History, Prevalence And Impacts Today

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Through exploration of spatial histories, it is evident that architecture habitually materialises and epitomizes the configurations of power, including racialized power (Brown, 2019). This is executed by creating built opportunities for racism to exercise itself, in this case, through the American and South African built environment. Hence, at the core of the publicised signage that delineate boundaries between black and white space, coloured waiting rooms and separate water fountains of the Jim Crow Era, is American architectural form that echoes white supremacy, particularly during the 1870s to 1960s (Weyeneth, 2019). This notion resonated over 12000 kilometres away, with the South African community during a similar period of race-based oppression; the Apartheid, where architecture played a distinctive role of defining and manifesting white superiority (Manning, 2004). Comparing geographic contexts through their individual history, race-space relation and spatialised expression, provides opportunity to obtain a deeper understanding on the power of built form, connecting architecture of injustice from diverse cultures. Despite simultaneously constituting racial segregation in the past, American and South African architecture, differ in the extent of manifesting preceding racial ideologies through modern architecture.

Examining Origins: History, roots and geography

America vs South Africa

Considering the American timeline, a period which altered the discourse of spatial histories to constitute discrimination against African Americans is the Jim Crow Era. This era facilitated the practises and legislations that reinforced spatial segregation heightened through spatial strategies of white supremacy (Robinson, 2005). From the end of Reconstruction to the commencement of the Civil Rights Movement southern state laws that ordered separation between whites and ‘persons of colour’ were constituted (Urofsky, 2019). Segregation was materialised at every architectural scale, particularly down South, although the North of America also preserved tenacious distance between races (Mele & Adelman, date). Disconnection filtered through all public spaces from parks to restaurants, to the extent that physical distinction was prodigal as ‘races knew their subordinate place’ (Urofsy, 2019). After many decades, the South’s solution to this issue was for spaces to be ‘separate but equal’; an impractical enforcement (Urofsy, 2019).

Coherently, power was entertained by South African society well after the British imperial emancipation of 1834; the Cape Colony ended slavery (Smith, 1992). Segregation can be detected in even the meaning of the word ‘Apartheid’ which translates in Afrikaans to ‘Apartness’ (Social Policy, 2019). The Apartheid is a policy that governs ‘relationships between South Africa’s white minority and none white majority’ (Social Policy,2019). The difference here lies in the population of both races, as America comprised mostly of ‘white’ people, regardless, white superiority remained at the forefront of both geographies. The distinctive timeline of both America and South Africa were almost parallel in enforcement of exclusive laws, demonstration through architecture and oppression of ‘people of colour.’

Impacts and Prevalence Today

Travelling down histories course, the past is commonly blurred, hence the domination of architecture is simultaneously forgotten. Post the Jim Crow and Apartheid Era, the expectation would be for immense change and new beginnings however, this is necessarily not the case. Aligning with segregation of African American’s in American public spaces, figure 5 captures the Montpelier Train Deport in Virginia when laws prevented cross-race mingling in 1910 (Tribune News Service, 2016). During a 2010 renovation, preservationists decided to maintain rooms and signage. These elements were preserved to exhibit the legal history of ‘separate but equal’ laws, effects on black residents and to continue the dialog of architecture and race, with similar approaches undertaken in Post- Apartheid architecture (Edwards, 2010).

America vs South Africa

Architecture can be referred to as an instrument of domination and in Americas context fulfilled the intention of excluding African Americans (Lambert, 2016). Suzan Smith, University of Cambridge geographer’s definition of ‘racialized spaces’ is characterised by two major distinctions: firstly, space is not limited to city scales consisting of large buildings and neighbourhood blocks but incorporates all built space and secondly, these spaces are regarded ‘socially produced space’(Brown, 2019). Hence, when considering this approach where race is the focus of analysis in ‘critiquing production and perception of space,’ it is essential to understand race, to recognize spatialization of it (Brown, 2019). The following is a definition of race presented by Michael Omi and Howard Winant, most commonly used by scholars : “race is a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies (Harris, 2013)”

When applying this definition to the context of racializing architectural space, the understanding of race is shaped by ‘political, economic, social and psychological concepts of space and race’ (Brown, 2019). Western culture is historically idealised and thus, the construction of white spatial dwelling is considered privileged. In contrast to non-white space that is considered impoverished and dirty (Brown, 2019).

Most prevalent of these methods was isolation; spaces designed to keep whites and blacks apart. Although ‘exclusion,’ restricting African Americans’ use of public facilities, has been publicised through the famous “white only” signs, ‘duplication’ was a widespread form of separation (Weyeneth, 2019). Duplication is establishing facilities for people of colour to dwell in, separate from white spaces. These buildings came following the 1945 legislation that demanded equality, however this was largely contradicted. For example, in South Carolina in the 1930s, fifty white families were located in single-standing housing at the top of a slope facing a segregated university (Weyeneth, 2019). On the same site, seventy-five black families occupied houses in rows downhill, in front of a black high school. Despite existing on the same plain, African American residents were given less space, worse housing area and crammed housing, however this was normalised.

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Similarly, through hundreds of years of colonialism in South Africa and the Apartheid, false ideology of white superiority was internalised; to embrace white not black, English over Afrikaans. Parallel to the Jim Crow Era, the Apartheid manipulated space, using it as part of ‘repressive arsenal’ against black South Africans (Soni, 1992). With the objective of displaying wealth and minimising space for social interaction, the environment of South African architecture morphed into a ‘surreal dystopian environment’ that promoted self-interest and segregation with the physical resemblance of Eurocentric spaces, yielding anti-African value (Soni, 1992). The social theory of ‘structuration’ of society is regarded as prominent to spatial and temporal contexts by sociologists. The underlying concept of structuration theory is power exercised through objects and people. The ‘syntactic’ properties, such as ‘depth’ and ‘choice,’ is a way which relationships are embodied in spatial layouts.

Impacts and Prevalence Today

As a result of exclusivity in the Jim Crow Era, hubs for African American’s to congregate arose across the country, one of these was the Keese Barn in Pendleton, South Carolina (Edwards, 2010). Namely, towards the south of America, interactions were controlled by boundaries of the space. Such boundaries, considering architecture suggests a certain ‘extent of physicality’ (Edward,2010). However, when designing a space, the following attributes were to mirror the power structure of the law; methods of access, functional uses and spatial limitations. The Barn reflected these constraints in a unique, manipulative manner. An example of such space is the second floor of the barn; a congregation space for all races to interact, simultaneously following law by creating separate access points (Edward,2010). One access point was central and another hidden; the architectural design reversed roles as the ‘white’ entrance was hidden, contrary to typical Jim Crow buildings. After Brown v Board of Education where the court un-constitutionalised segregation, Keese Barn depreciated thru period of social and legal change. Driven by the mission to stop segregation, there were efforts during Jim Crow to accommodate interaction between races, however these attempts were largely unsuccessful.

America vs South Africa

Architectural design embodied racial boundaries that surpass the unequivocal indictors such as signage (Robinson, 2005). During instances where no law governed spatial segregation, racial boundaries where marked and defined by de facto, as a result of the following:

  1. Customary practises
  2. Visual and behavioural cues

Investigating beyond signage, residential housing offered grounds for segregation, secured through efforts on behalf of whites to exclude black households (Mele and Adelman, 2014). Historically, homeownership is regarded an integral symbol of belonging, wealth and achievement (Robinson, 2005). Historian, David Freund evidently concluded that many advocates of exclusion used the terms ‘citizen,’ ‘voter,’ ‘homeowner’ and ‘white’ interchangeably (Robinson, 2005). Thus, throughout metropolitan areas across America, white homeowners legally entered into ‘racially restrictive covenant’(Mele and Adelman, 2014). When analysing the single-story home of Rudy and Eva Weingarten in the San Fernando Valley of South Los Angeles in 1955, segregation can be detected (Harris, 2013). Despite the area being unrestricted to people of colour, no Latino’s or African Americans occupied the space, during the early years and builders abided by racially exclusive practises in order to seal federal financing. As uncovered in Laura Barraclough’s study of San Fernando Valley; a mere 3.3% of ‘subsidized’ suburban housing units constructed in the 1950s were obtainable by African Americans. Entertaining the fact that the San Fernando Valley by 1950s comprised of 22000 Jews and only 5000 African Americans. White privilege entails spatialised set of practises; freedom of geographical movement, property rights (Harris, 2013).

In South Africa, despite the most aspired architecture being detached single-standing houses, elevated with swimming pools and high walls, the African American residential circumstance was far from it (Soni, 1992). The material expression has been fuelled through history by power relationships between dominant and dominated classes, hence two institutionalised systems of control; Bantustan and township (Mills, 1989). The orthodox township originated in 1946 when companies collaborated with the council to mirror low-income sector easy, affordable housing. The outcome was now NE/51/6 AND NE/51/9 only free-standing designs & with two rectangular side spaces, generating ‘paper-like’ urban plan (Soni, 1992). Under architect P.W Botha, in April 1979 an initiative took place to reform a township to build around 2500 houses for legal residents, with only two-thirds of that amount built, cultural need for housing heightened for the so-called ‘coloured’ (Soni, 1992).

Through the Khayelitsha proposal many developments diverged from original policy. Khayelitsha was situated on landscapes with unfavourably low-lying sand dunes and high winds. Establishing Khayelitsha reflected revised approach, different from Bantustans, which halted ‘black’ settlement within ‘white’ regions.

Impacts and Prevalence Today

In South Africa, post-apartheid in 1994, the mission to create a new identity resulted in the “Rainbow Nation” idea, which envisioned a ‘multicultural, reconciled’ society (De Raedt, 2012). As architecture is pivotal in manifesting this identity by physically reflecting transformations, the country witnessed a building boom (De Raedt, 2012). Despite these efforts in the past, recent photography uncovers the clear persistence of inequality exaggerated in the countries capital of Cape Town (Chutel, 2016). Figure 12, captures this distinction with white privileged housing located on the left and township-like, close-net housing to the right. Hence, it can be concluded that the South African built environment carries racially segregating architecture.


Hence, architecture as a ‘domination’ has played a significant role in physically manifesting the racial ideologies, behaviours and motifs throughout history. Whilst American and South African architecture constituted racial segregation in the past, they differ in the extent of manifesting preceding racial ideologies through modern architecture. Today, both geographical contexts have taken a new approach to architecture through urbanisation, however the social, cultural and environmental impacts continue today with Jim Crow and Apartheid architecture prevalent today. However, American architecture simultaneously takes a focus on preserving moments of segregation through spaces for the purpose of education. Nonetheless, although American and South African society differ in the extent of manifesting previous ideologies today it is clear that architecture plays an integral role in promoting the values, attitudes and beliefs of society.

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Racial Segregation: History, Prevalence And Impacts Today. (2021, September 07). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 26, 2022, from
“Racial Segregation: History, Prevalence And Impacts Today.” Edubirdie, 07 Sept. 2021,
Racial Segregation: History, Prevalence And Impacts Today. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 26 Nov. 2022].
Racial Segregation: History, Prevalence And Impacts Today [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 07 [cited 2022 Nov 26]. Available from:
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