The 1960s were not that long ago. Many blacks who endured Jim Crow are still alive — as are many of the whites who kept blacks out of the swimming pool. When we think about history, we often see developments as natural — segregation was always going to fall in 1968, wasn’t it? Humanity was evolving, and had finally reached its stage of shedding legal racial separation and discrimination. That never could have continued into the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. We were, finally, too civilized for that.
South Africa provides some perspective. It was brutally ruled by a small minority of white colonizers for centuries, first the Dutch (1652-1815) and then the British (1815-1910). The population was enslaved until 1834. White rule continued from 1910 to 1992, after Britain made the nation a dominion (self-governing yet remaining part of the empire; full independence was voted for by whites in 1960). The era known as apartheid was from 1948-1992, when harsher discriminatory laws and strict “apartness” began, but it is important to know how bad things were before this:
Scores of laws and regulations separated the population into distinct groups, ensuring white South Africans access to education, higher-paying jobs, natural resources, and property while denying such things to the black South African population, Indians, and people of mixed race. Between union in 1910 and 1948, a variety of whites-only political parties governed South Africa… The agreement that created the Union denied black South Africans the right to vote… Regulations set aside an increasing amount of the most fertile land for white farmers and forced most of the black South African population to live in areas known as reserves. Occupying the least fertile and least desirable land and lacking industries or other developments, the reserves were difficult places to make a living. The bad conditions on the reserves and policies such as a requirement that taxes be paid in cash drove many black South Africans—particularly men—to farms and cities in search of employment opportunities.
With blacks pushing into cities and for their civil rights, the government began “implementing the apartheid system to segregate the country’s races and guarantee the dominance of the white minority.” Apartheid was the solidification of segregation into law. Legislation segregated public facilities like buses, stores, restaurants, hospitals, parks, and beaches. Further, one of the
…most significant acts in terms of forming the basis of the apartheid system was the Group Areas Act of 1950. It established residential and business sections in urban areas for each race, and members of other races were barred from living, operating businesses, or owning land in them—which led to thousands of Coloureds, Blacks, and Indians being removed from areas classified for white occupation… [The government] set aside more than 80 percent of South Africa’s land for the white minority. To help enforce the segregation of the races and prevent Blacks from encroaching on white areas, the government strengthened the existing “pass” laws, which required nonwhites to carry documents authorizing their presence in restricted areas…
Separate educational standards were established for nonwhites. The Bantu Education Act (1953) provided for the creation of state-run schools, which Black children were required to attend, with the goal of training the children for the manual labour and menial jobs that the government deemed suitable for those of their race. The Extension of University Education Act (1959) largely prohibited established universities from accepting nonwhite students…
[In addition,] the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949) and the Immorality Amendment Act (1950) prohibited interracial marriage or sex…
The created conditions were predictable: “While whites generally lived well, Indians, Coloureds, and especially Blacks suffered from widespread poverty, malnutrition, and disease.”
Then, in 1970, blacks lost their citizenship entirely.
Apartheid ended only in the early 1990s due to decades of organizing, protest, civil disobedience, riots, and violence. Lives were lost and laws were changed — through struggle and strife, most explosively in the 1970s and 80s, a better world was built. The same happened in the U.S. in the 1950s and 60s. But our civil rights struggle and final victory could easily have occurred later as well. The whites of South Africa fighting to maintain apartheid all the way until the 1990s were not fundamentally different human beings than American whites of the same era. They may have held more despicable views on average, been more stuck in the segregationist mindset, but they were not different creatures. Varying views come from unique national histories, different societal developments — different circumstances. Had the American civil rights battle unfolded differently, we could have seen Jim Crow persist past the fall of the Berlin Wall. Such a statement feels like an attack on sanity because history feels natural — surely it was impossible for events to unfold in other ways — and due to nationalism, Americans thinking themselves better, more fundamentally good and civilized, than people of other nations. Don’t tell them that other countries ended slavery, gave women the right to vote, and so on before the United States (and most, while rife with racism and exclusion, did not codify segregation into law as America did; black Americans migrated to France in the 19th and 20th centuries for refuge, with Richard Wright declaring there to be “more freedom in one square block of Paris than in the entire United States”). If one puts aside the glorification of country and myths of human difference and acknowledges that American history and circumstances could have gone differently, the disturbing images begin to appear: discos keeping out people of color, invading Vietnam with a segregated army, Blockbusters with “Whites Only” signs.