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.
But by 1967, when the Supreme Court struck down bans on interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia, only sixteen states still had such laws. In Loving v. Virginia, a white man, Richard Loving, and his black wife, Mildred Jeter, were arrested in Virginia on the grounds that their marriage license from the District of Columbia was invalid and that they had violated the sinister-sounding Racial Integrity Act. They were given a choice of a one-year jail term or exile from Virginia for twenty-five years by the lower court judge, Leon Bazile, who declared: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents…. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” (One wonders if conservative Virginia Christians noticed the judge’s dismissal of the biblical story of the common origin of humanity in favor of the non-Christian Deist theory of “polygenesis.”) In his majority opinion for the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren ignored the Fourteenth Amendment and argued that the Virginia law violated the equal protection clause and fundamental privacy.
As Kennedy points out, many sponsors of the Fourteenth Amendment “explicitly announced that it would not encroach upon states’ authority to impose racially neutral prohibitions on interracial marriage. This history poses a dilemma for thoroughgoing originalists who object to antimiscegenation laws. If they are to stay true to their interpretive philosophy, such originalists must concede that Loving v. Commonwealth of Virginia was wrongly decided.” He then twists the knife in a footnote: “It is a delicious irony that the most fervent champion of originalism on the Supreme Court in recent memory is an African-American–Justice Clarence Thomas–who was married in Virginia to a white woman named Virginia.”
In another footnote, Kennedy writes, “It is my own belief that the struggle to secure the right to marry regardless of the genders of the parties involved will be won in the not so distant future,” in part as a result of “previous struggles over race relations.” Kennedy’s faith that the federal courts, rather than legislatures, will act as the vanguard of progress in civil rights may be tested in an era in which Republican Presidents will have stacked the federal judiciary with conservatives. If even Democrats like Bill Clinton scrambled to support the Defense of Marriage Act, what is to prevent a loose-constructionist Supreme Court stacked by right-wing Republicans from pretending to discover a ban on gay marriage in the Constitution and striking down all state and local laws recognizing gay unions? Judicial activism can be used on behalf of conservative as well as liberal conceptions of civil liberties.
Kennedy argues that racial thinking in the United States is divided between an optimist tradition and a pessimist tradition. As an example of the pessimist tradition, he cites Thomas Jefferson, whose enthusiasm for solving America’s race “problem” by deporting blacks to some foreign country was shared by Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln and–in the twentieth century–Theodore Bilbo. The optimists “have included Frederick Douglass, Lydia Maria Child, Wendell Phillips, and Martin Luther King Jr.” Today’s pessimists can find evidence of the enduring power of the black-white dichotomy in the discrepancy in intermarriage rates among different groups. According to Romano, “Over 50 percent of Native Americans marry outside their racial group, while 25 percent of Asians do. In 1990, by comparison, only 6 percent of married blacks had nonblack (primarily white) spouses.” The number rises to 10.8 percent if only first-time marriages are counted, however. Although voters removed inoperative but still offensive prohibitions against racial intermarriage in the constitutions of Mississippi (1987), South Carolina (1998) and Alabama (2000), Romano cites ample anecdotal evidence suggesting that the South is still far more hostile to interracial unions than the rest of the country.
Racial optimists, however, can find support for their view as well. Romano quotes a 1997 Gallup poll in which 61 percent of white respondents claimed to approve of interracial marriage. Although some vocal black nationalists continue to oppose intermarriage, according to a 2001 poll cited by Romano two-thirds of black men and one-half of black women had dated a person of another race.
Racial optimists tend to emphasize class differences rather than bigotry as the chief barrier to an even higher rate of racial amalgamation in the United States. The importance of social equality as a precondition for intermarriage is illustrated by the fact that personnel in the US military, an artificially egalitarian and meritocratic subculture, have a higher rate of interracial marriage than the rest of society. White male soldiers are three times more likely than white male civilians, and white female soldiers seven times more likely than white female civilians, to take black marriage partners.
According to Kennedy: “The extent to which racial minorities are conspicuously encumbered by poverty, unemployment, lesser educational opportunities, and like deprivations is the minimum extent to which they will continue to be marginalized in the common market for companionship.” Romano agrees that the major barrier to racial amalgamation is no longer caste but class: “Income inequality and school and residential segregation not only act as barriers preventing blacks and whites from meeting in situations that might lead to dating, but also continue the racial disadvantages that make blacks less attractive as marital partners…. Marriage between blacks and whites will not become commonplace until race is no longer a marker of privilege or disadvantage.”
The small but growing minority of children with parents of different races is calling America’s centuries-old racial classification system into question. Should children of interracial marriages be classified as “multiracial,” “biracial”–or not racially classified at all? The campaign to add a “multiracial” category to the census of 2000 was defeated by the black civil rights establishment, which feared that the numbers of “official” blacks would decline as a result. Ironically, black civil rights leaders are today the last defenders of the “one-drop rule,” inherited from American apartheid, which says that anyone with even one African ancestor is “black.” They succeeded in blocking the adoption of a multiracial category by the census, which, however, permitted individuals to check more than one box. This political compromise, which had the absurd result of allowing the US population to add up to more than 100 percent of itself, permitted almost 785,000 Americans to say that they were both black and white. (Don’t even ask about “Hispanics/Latinos,” a category that is based on immigration or descent from immigrants from a particular designated set of foreign nations, and includes people of all “races.”)
The “multiracial” and “biracial” labels are based on the premise that most American people are divided “naturally,” as it were, into five distinct races, and that all other Americans must be defined in relation to two or more of the big five. Even if it had a name other than “multiracial” or “biracial,” a proposed sixth official US race would still be a catchall category. The children of white-Asian marriages may have nothing in common with those of Asian-Latino marriages, and they form at best a mere statistical category, not a genuine cultural “community.”
The attempt of government to pigeonhole Americans by race is most obnoxious in the case of “race-matching,” or the attempt to match adopted children to adoptive parents of their own official “race.” Kennedy’s passionate and well-reasoned polemic against this concludes: “The United States should prohibit all governments under its aegis–federal, state, and tribal–from engaging in race matching.” He goes further: “If dismantling [racial] affirmative action must be part of the price of effectively doing away with race matching, it is no more than I, for one, am willing to pay.”
The insistence of many progressives that the elimination of government racial labels and race-specific policies must await the complete extinction of racist sentiments in the American population reverses the cause-and-effect relationship. It makes no sense to say that race doesn’t matter, on the one hand, while insuring that how the federal government classifies your race makes a difference in access to benefits or even to adoptive parents. The fact that there are still bigots in America should not prevent the federal government from treating all Americans as individuals. And if conservatives want to quote Martin Luther King Jr. and adopt the liberal integrationist position as their own, this is proof of the success of the civil rights revolution in transforming American thinking about race even on the right.
We will never eliminate the vestiges of caste from this society by multiplying the number of castes. The United States ought to go from having five official races to having none–preferably by
the census of 2010 or 2020. The mainstream left opposes the abolition of racial classifications because it wants to preserve race-based social programs like affirmative action–while the mainstream right has appealed to white backlash by adopting the color-blind ideal of liberal integrationists as its own. Whatever one thinks of the motives of the right, the race-conscious left has pursued a failed strategy since the civil rights revolution. Need-based social programs, which benefit the black and Latino poor disproportionately even if they help a greater number of needy whites, are far more popular than race-specific programs with white voters, who will remain a majority of the electorate until late in this century or beyond. The warnings of liberal integrationists like Bayard Rustin against the left’s adoption of programs that don’t benefit at least some whites have been vindicated–along with the prediction of conservative segregationists like Bilbo–that the end of segregation would lead to the blending of the races in America.
“Malignant racial biases can and do reside in interracial liaisons,” Kennedy observes. “But against the tragic backdrop of American history, the flowering of multiracial intimacy is a profoundly moving and encouraging development, one that lends support to Frederick Douglass’s belief that eventually ‘the white and colored people of this country [can] be blended into a common nationality, and enjoy together…the inestimable blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'”