Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe has a column today in which he explores the evidence that following the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, our nation’s long history of racial segregation did not arise naturally. Instead, racial segregation and the elaborate system of Jim Crow laws throughout the nation had to be painstakingly assembled in the face of considerable public opposition or indifference.

Jacoby notes that separate public facilities for white and black citizens were not the norm in the South until early in the 20th century, after laws began to mandate such segregation. He also points out that the rise of Jim Crow was met in some quarters with mockery and indignation, as shown by this 1898 editorial in the Charleston News and Courier, which argued against the proposed segregation of railroad cars in terms which foresaw the future only too well:

If we must have Jim Crow cars on the railroads, there should be Jim Crow . . . passenger boats. Moreover, there should be Jim Crow waiting saloons at all stations, and Jim Crow eating houses . . . There should be Jim Crow sections of the jury box, and a separate Jim Crow dock and witness stand in every court – and a Jim Crow Bible for colored witnesses to kiss.

The important historical lesson, of course, is that racial prejudice and segregationist practices do not arise naturally or immediately, even in the aftermath of slavery and racial tension between whites and freed blacks. The long, dark history of Jim Crow came about slowly, required careful coordination, and provoked resistance or ridicule from at least some upstanding citizens before the public was uniformly convinced (or willing to remain silent).

To be sure, a key component of this process was that the political system was used, in state after state, to help construct and enforce the system of post-Civil War racial segregation. However, Jacoby contends, on thin evidence, that popular sentiment was not an important factor in the decades-long process by which politicians in southern (and northern, and western) states enacted an astonishing variety of segregationist laws.

Instead, Jacoby, a consistently conservative columnist, makes a very different claim in his column, that it was “the laws themselves that segregated the South.” In other words, he wants his readers to believe that misguided regulation by “the political class,”  in the face of opposition from private businessmen and indifference from the comparative innocent white population, was responsible for racial segregation.

Judging from today’s column, Jacoby’s preferred interpretation is strained, and the evidence is weak. For one thing, Jacoby fails to acknowledge that the attitudes of the politicians in state legislatures are hardly independent of popular convictions, especially over the long run.

The core of his argument, however, is a 1986 journal article by Jennifer Roback Morse, a retired economist who now spends her time arguing for traditional marriage and other conservative social causes, and summarizes her own beliefs with statements such as:

The economy, which appears to a series of impersonal exchanges of material objects among strangers, is actually based upon love. The political order, which seems to be about power, actually depends upon loving families.

In her 1986 study, “The Political Economy of Segregation: The Case of Segregated Streetcars,” Jennifer Roback Morse presented evidence that private transportation companies resisted the implementation of segregation laws as they applied to their businesses.

Jacoby reviews this pattern in detail, but he also acknowledges the obvious reason for this highly limited resistance to racial segregation on the part of transit company officials: they were reluctant to incur the significant expense involved in implementing segregated streetcars. This evidence hardly amounts to a case that popular sentiment among whites was against segregation, or that state legislators were doing anything other than following the wishes of the majority (or the most vocal) of their constituents.

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