The phrase “de jure” means “in law” in Latin. It refers to a policy or standard which has been established by law, in contrast with something which is “de facto,” or “in fact.” These two terms are often found in use together, with people drawing a line between practices which are commonly accepted and practices which are actually legally endorsed.
There are a number of contexts in which people might describe something as being de jure. For example, in American history, women were not given the right to vote until 1920, when the 19th Amendment was ratified, allowing women to legally vote. However, many women were denied the right to vote through de facto policy long after this in communities where people disagreed with the suffragist movement.
The contrast between de facto practice and de jure practice often comes up when discussing discrimination. Many nations have clear de jure laws on the books which are meant to curb discrimination against ethnic minorities, women, and people of unconventional sexual orientation. However, in some of these cases, de facto practices continue to promote discrimination despite the clear legal mandate. Because of the legal attempts to stamp out discrimination, proving de facto discrimination can actually get quite tricky, because people and organizations that practice discrimination are careful to conceal their activities.
Some people feel that a de jure mandate is often not enough, because changing the law will not change entrenched cultural values. Others believe that establishing something in a court of law or through legislation is crucial, because it can be used as a basis to change society's views on an issue. As an example, interracial marriage was once viewed as shockingly deviant, until laws forbidding it were struck down, after which it became quite common in many societies. It is also crucial to enforce a de jure mandate, as legal mandates are useless unless people act upon them. Stating that all citizens should be treated equally, for example, is only effective when victims of unequal treatment bring suit.
Some other uses of the term include “de jure government” to refer to a government which rules legally and with the consent of the people, in contrast with a de facto government, which takes control of a country by force. De jure segregation is segregation which is enshrined in the law, as in the infamous “separate but equal” laws which allowed segregation in the United States to persist legally well through the 1960s.