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

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I agree completely with the other answer. One can have political equality without social equality, a situation we saw in this country for a number of decades until voting laws were recently weakened. Blacks achieved political equality—equal rights to vote, equal access under the law to education, housing, and other benefits—but did not achieve social equality with whites. In other words, despite a host of legislation making blacks the political equals of whites, racism has still prevailed in this country. We still see each other as black or white and tend to judge accordingly.

However, political equality is the foundation of eventual social equality. If a group is legally segregated from the rest of society, it is very difficult to accept members of that group as equal. If a child sees from an early age that one group is not allowed to drink, say, from the same water fountain or swim in the same pool, he or she is likely to internalize the idea that something is "wrong" or "dirty" about members of that group. If children in that group are also not allowed to go to school with children of the dominant group, these children never have an opportunity to learn that we are all just people. Political segregation reinforces the kind of social segregation that perpetuates social inequality and makes it almost impossible to overcome.

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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.

 

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