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World’s urban centers built with racial separation in mind


Published September 6, 2012

“Segregation has always been a tool of power.”
Carl Nightingale, Associate Professor of Transnational Studies and American Studies

Carl Nightingale

When we think about segregation, most of us harken back to the American Jim Crow era (1866 to 1965) or to South Africa’s legislation-enforced period of apartheid, which lasted from 1948 to 1994.

However, Carl Nightingale, associate professor of transnational studies and American studies, has been studying this phenomenon for nearly a decade and has uncovered a much more complex portrait of segregation.

His recently released book, “Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities” (University of Chicago Press, 2012), traces the roots of the practice from ancient times using a range of evidence to illuminate humanity’s long-standing use of urban divisions to reinforce political and economic inequality.

The book recently was reviewed by The Economist and the Boston Globe, and articles on the issues it covers have appeared in the May 28 issue of, in Times Higher Education, the Chicago Tribune and in several history, news and academic blogs.

Nightingale will discuss the book at 7 p.m. Sept. 12 at Talking Leaves bookstore, 3158 Main St., Buffalo. The talk is free of charge and the public is invited.

In exploring the subject from a global perspective, “Segregation,” which has been called “magisterial,” demonstrates that all cities, not only those that separated black from white, suffer from legacies of racial segregation.

Nightingale begins by describing the first cities, in which the god-kings built special neighborhoods for themselves separate from those of mere mortals. He then traces the evolution of segregation, describing how it expanded to division by class, caste, clan, craft, religion, gender and—by the early 18th century—color.

He describes how Calcutta, the capital of British India and the first city openly divided by race and the practice, was influential in the development of segregationist ideology.

First colonized by the British in the 1690s, the racial separation of Calcutta actually was viewed as a failure, he says, because “the wealth of many of India’s elites allowed them to move into white neighborhoods. This made it difficult for the British colonialists to employ segregation laws because of the political alienation it would provoke.”

The failure in Calcutta was duly noted by imperial officials, reformers and the real estate industry, Nightingale says, and it led them to develop tools that would allow segregation to survive and spread throughout the world: segregation ordinances, zoning laws, walls, forced removals and the promulgation of segregationist ideologies that led some groups to simply flee from others.

Useful for the latter purpose was the notion that segregation promoted sanitation and public health, an idea grounded in the belief that Africans and Asians are not only dirtier than whites, but that they are, by nature, vectors of infectious disease.

Nightingale says housing policies and the real estate market, however, have had the greatest impact on contemporary segregation within cities because they maintain disparity between white and minority property values, literally keeping those of a particular race, caste, religion or ethnicity in “their” place.

“Segregation has always been a tool of power,” he notes. “It isn’t the only tool, but is useful for elites who want to enforce their strength.”

He says segregation has fascinated him since childhood, when the backyard of his home in the Philadelphia suburbs ended at a fence that separated his white neighborhood from a black neighborhood.

“The fence was meant to protect ‘us’—the white people in my neighborhood—but was, of course, unjust in larger sense,” says Nightingale. His continued fascination with that fence inspired him to study the issues dividing cities around the world.

The book examines the history of segregation in several cities, including Hong Kong, Chicago, Nairobi and San Francisco. He also made eight trips to Johannesburg to study South African archives and the way apartheid was institutionalized and employed—first by the British Empire and then the Afrikaans government, which systematized and perpetuated it for almost 50 years.

“The point I want to make is that segregation doesn’t just exist. It is made, and it is made with the specific aim of perpetuating the power, wealth and authority of some at significant expense to others,” Nightingale says. “The aim of this study is to inform the conversation we have about this issue in the U.S. and abroad.”

Nightingale has written extensively on the intersections of urban history, world history and critical race theory. His studies have appeared in the American Historical Review, the Journal of Social History and the Journal of Urban History, among other publications.

He also is the author of the weblog “Global Segregation: Human-Made Obstacles to Human Movement across Oceans, Borders and Urban Space.”