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The Segregation Epidemic

Posted by Josh Rothman  August 21, 2012 01:59 PM

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When and where was segregation “invented”? At first blush, it sounds like a question without an answer. Here in the United States, segregation is something we associate with the legacy of slavery, but expand your geographic scope and it comes to seem like a perennial problem, part of humankind’s general obsession with “in-groups” and “out-groups.” Look at the specific practices and institutions that enable modern segregation, however, and it has a specific, and surprising origin story. As the historian Carl Nightingale argues in his new book, Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities, segregation was invented “in the Indian ocean”:

British colonial officials in Madras and Calcutta adapted concepts of color and race for the specific purpose of dividing cities. There, officials, reformers, and land speculators also invented some of the most enduring justifications for their policy of racial segregation: that it could demonstrate the grandeur of the Western imperial mission; that it allowed officials to administer multiracial colonies efficiently; that it could reduce the dangers of epidemic disease and race mixing; and that it could protect the value of white people’s urban property….. From these colonial capitals, race segregation and its guiding doctrines spread to other places.

It’s really a colonial story, Nightingale srgues: from Madras and Calcutta, the specific arguments and techniques used to create segregation (like enlisting banks and rewriting property laws) spread, “stainlike,” to other colonized places. Often, the spread was precipitated by very specific historical events. So, for example, an outbreak of bubonic plague in Hong Kong in 1894 offered an opportunity for the institution of segregationist policies; the same happened in Bombay in 1896. As the outbreak spread to Europe, segregation spread, too, presented as a health measure, and those practices made their way to America. There was, Nightingale writes, an “early twentieth-century segregation mania.” Unfortunately, it continues to shape our cities today.

Nightingale’s book is both too detailed and too sweeping to summarize here, but it’s fascinating, and well worth a look for anyone who’s interested not only in segregation, but also in the evolution and history of the world’s cities.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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