During the early years of the civil rights revolution, Theodore Bilbo, the ferocious segregationist senator from Mississippi, published a book titled Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization. He argued that the inevitable result of the abolition of formal racial segregation would be racial amalgamation.
He was right, according to new studies of racial intermarriage by Randall Kennedy and Renee Romano. In the words of Romano, “The old segregationist fear that integration would lead to ‘race mixing’ was well founded.”
Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America by Renee Romano, assistant professor of history and African-American studies at Wesleyan University, is a straightforward chronicle of laws and mores governing black-white unions in America, from the colonial era through the segregationist period to the present. Randall Kennedy, a Harvard Law professor and a noted public intellectual, follows up Race, Crime and the Law and Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word with a more expansive and detailed study of the theme in Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption.
Different in genre and scale, the two books address the same phenomenon: the erosion of the taboo against black-white intermarriage, a taboo far older and deeper than those against unions between whites and Native Americans, Latinos or Asians (a subject they treat only incidentally). The number of black-white married couples has risen from 51,000 in 1960, when only 1.7 percent of married black Americans had a white spouse, to 363,000 in 2000, when 4.3 percent of blacks had white spouses. When interracial marriages of all kinds are counted, the numbers have risen from 0.4 percent of the total in 1960 to almost 2 percent in 2000.
The numbers may be small, but the rate of increase represents a genuine revolution in American society, where for centuries harsh laws penalized interracial unions. In the nineteenth century white hostility to interracial marriage was almost universal. As Kennedy notes, most Northerners in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras supported separate-but-equal arrangements in the laws governing marriage and other social interactions. He quotes Lincoln’s ally, the Illinois Republican Senator Lyman Trumbull: “If the negro is denied the right to marry a white person, [and] the white person is equally denied the right to marry the negro[,] I see no discrimination against either.” Neither the Civil Rights Act of 1866 nor the Fourteenth Amendment would have passed if it had intended to strike down laws against interracial marriage. Lincoln himself repeatedly justified the colonization of black Americans in Africa, the Caribbean and Central America, a policy he inherited from his heroes Henry Clay and Thomas Jefferson and abandoned only reluctantly in the course of the Civil War, on the grounds that only the expatriation of blacks could remove the alleged danger of racial amalgamation (known by the pejorative term “miscegenation”).
Kennedy observes, “After Ohio repealed its antimiscegenation laws in 1887, no other state followed its lead until Oregon finally did so in 1951–sixty-four years later. In the sixteen years after that, however, more than a dozen states repealed their statutes: Montana (1953), North Dakota (1955), Colorado and South Dakota (1957), California, Nevada, and Idaho (1959), Arizona (1962), Utah and Nebraska (1963), Indiana and Wyoming (1965), and Maryland (1967).” In 1940, thirty-one of the forty-eight states banned interracial marriage. As recently as 1960, Sammy Davis Jr. postponed his wedding to the Swedish actress May Britt until after the election, in order not to hurt the Democrats–and was rewarded with exclusion from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural festivities.