Blog Post #1: “Segregation” vs. “Integration”

I set out to make an observation about the relationship between the terms “segregation” and “integration” to draw a conclusion tying in closely with the civil rights movement. To supplement my light “research,” I perused the OED for a definition/year of usage that seemed to best fit the context of race relations that were contested so hotly during the civil rights battles in the United States.

In 1903, “segregation” was first used to denote “the enforced separation of different racial groups in a country, community, or institution” whereas in 1940, “integration” began to signify “the bringing into equal membership of a common society those groups or persons previously discriminated against on racial or cultural grounds.”

From a historical standpoint, these dates make sense. 1903 marked the turn of the century, a time of rapid change which, at least in America, grappled with relationships between African-Americans and white people in a disheveled post-Reconstruction nation. In 1940, America found itself closing up the wounds of an economic depression only to be shaken awake by the booms of world war a year later. This sudden shift in agenda rallied together all citizens, regardless of skin color, for a common cause, even if it seemed to only foster a short-lived period of harmony, judging by postwar American suburban conflict.

However, when looking at the Ngram Viewer, a different version of history presents itself. It seems the intersection between the two opposing words occurs at 1920 — a time before both the Great Depression and the tumult felt through the world via World War II. In fact, the Roaring Twenties were a time of financial excess, government corruption, and Fitzgeraldian decadence — so perhaps the upswing on the usage of “integration” tackled its disambiguative properties as a word to describe the economic conglomeration of assets? This is one of the shortcomings of viewing things through this graph: numbers don’t equal tangible causal relationships.

Furthermore, Google Books probably pulls from academic sources from all over the world to consolidate its database into large indexes of data. To draw jingoistic conclusions that favor an Americanized portrayal of word usage ignores a large chunk of the literate, scholarly population. Although in landmark instances a useful tool for visualizing the historical context of the English language’s changes and revisions, the Ngram Viewer doesn’t work well with words that have multiple meanings.

One thought on “Blog Post #1: “Segregation” vs. “Integration””

  1. I find this post quite interesting, especially as it aims to holistically present the term “integration.” Although I agree that the use of the term “integration” in the 1920s could have been a strong reflection of its discussion in terms of finance, I also believe that this term could have been linked to the ideas of international integration. Do you believe that the 1920s representation of the term “integration” could primarily be focused on the assimilation of immigrants into American society? Why or why not?

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