The Plessy decision distinguishes between political and social equality. Can one exist without the other?  

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is, of course, a matter of opinion.  My own view is that it is possible to have political equality without social equality, but it is not possible to have social equality without political equality.

Let us begin by defining our terms.  I would say that political equality exists when all people (in this case, people of different races) have the same right and opportunity to vote and to speak out on political issues.  There is political equality when African Americans have the right to vote and to speak out even if the majority does not agree with the black voices.  In other words, I would argue that we have political equality between the races here in the US today.

I would say that social equality exists when people of different races think of one another as essentially the same.  When white people think black people are “like them,” there is social equality.  If there is social equality, the average person will not mind if a person of another race lives next door or if a person of another race dates their child.

With these definitions in mind, I would argue that it is possible to have political equality without social equality, but that the opposite condition is not possible.  If, for example, the law says that black people cannot vote, it is very unlikely that white people will see them as equals.  After all, if the law treats them so differently, how could they possibly be equal?  These discriminatory laws will have too much of an impact on people’s thinking and social equality will not be able to exist where political equality does not exist.

On the other hand, I would say that it is possible to have political equality without social equality.  White people do not have to think that blacks are their equals in order to allow them to vote and to speak out on political issues.  It is entirely possible to believe that blacks are inferior in various ways while still believing that they should be allowed to speak and to vote.  For these reasons, I think that political equality is possible without social equality but social equality is not possible without political equality.