Mixing it up

Alabama just legalized black-white marriage. An expert talks about why it took so long and the American obsession with racial purity.

Published March 8, 2001 8:14PM (EST)

In November 2000, after a statewide vote in a special election, Alabama became the last state to overturn a law that was an ugly reminder of America's past, a ban on interracial marriage. The one-time home of George Wallace and Martin Luther King Jr. had held onto the provision for 33 years after the Supreme Court declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. Yet as the election revealed -- 40 percent of Alabamans voted to keep the ban -- many people still see the necessity for a law that prohibits blacks and whites from mixing blood.

Werner Sollors, a professor of Afro-American studies at Harvard, was born in Germany and came to the United States in 1978. He has been studying and writing about the history of American interracial relationships since 1986. Sollors is the editor of the recently published "Interracialism: Black-White Intermarriage in American History, Literature, and Law," a fascinating survey of legal decisions, literary criticism and essays by writers and scholars including Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois and Randall Kennedy. Salon spoke with Sollors by phone from his office in Cambridge about the mixed-race origins -- and multiracial future -- of the nation.

What took Alabama so long to overturn its anti-miscegenation law?

In the years after the Civil War, most of the Southern states made miscegenation bans part of their constitutions. And part of the constitutional provision was that no legislation should ever change them. These were not just ordinary laws that you could modify with a simple majority; they called for very complicated processes and very large majorities to be overturned.

In 1967, the Supreme Court invalidated these anti-miscegenation provisions with the Loving vs. Virginia case, and the Southern states began to adjust. But not right away. In the first 10 or 15 years, there wasn't a lot of activism or popular support for having the laws changed -- no politician wanted to be caught trying to remove those statutes. I think Mississippi did it in 1987 or 1988 -- 20 years after the Loving vs. Virginia case.

Alabama also had a law -- dating back to the 1833 Pace vs. Alabama case -- that mandated different punishment for a black-white couple who "fornicated" or committed adultery than for a same-race couple.

Isn't that amazing? It reads like Orwell. The federal Supreme Court sanctioned the states' right to mete out different punishment for the same offense depending on whether the people involved were of different races or not.

Another piece of legislation you include in the book is Virginia's Act to Preserve Racial Integrity of 1924.

They actually required people who got married to hand in authenticated racial genealogies. To get a marriage license you had to show that you and your partner were not of different races.

But all states weren't like Virginia. South Carolina took into account someone's reputation and place in society when judging whether that person was black.

Yes, South Carolina defined whiteness in a broader way than North Carolina or Virginia or Mississippi did. The assumption is that they wanted to have as many white people as possible in their community.

With state autonomy, if a general principle is agreed upon, states can take quite different routes to achieving that principle. If the principle is to have racial segregation in a hierarchical way, one state might think that it's a good idea to have as large a white population as possible. Another state might think the best thing is to have as sharp a dividing line as possible. Either of them makes sense, but they coexist in an interesting way and create a lot of drama in the United States. In the 19th century, you could move from one state to another and be reclassified racially.

The essays in your book suggest that fear of miscegenation was the driving force behind all racial classifications and, eventually, segregation.

It's really interesting how much effort had to be undertaken by lawmakers in so many states in order to prohibit something that clearly was going on. A whole apparatus of legislation arose to prohibit it, and in a way that runs so much against the grain of the democratic ethos. The free choice of the person you want to marry seems to be a pretty basic human right.

From that angle, it does indeed seem that the core of the fear of racial integration is miscegenation, and that everything else surrounding it is protecting that core. In the 1950s, even in the argument about school and desegregation, there was always the bottom-line question: Do you want your daughter to marry a Negro? President Truman famously asked that of a reporter.

It's interesting that it's always "daughter."

That has something to do with the way "the Negro" was cast in the popular imagination. A good example is Gunnar Myrdal's classic study of American blacks, "An American Dilemma," which really changed the climate against segregation in 1944. It's a massive book, 1,500 pages, in which the Negro is always imagined as a man. Women are white women. When people said "the Negro," the first association was always a man, and the problem of the Negro was the problem of Negro men. Which is something the last three decades of scholarship about black women has somewhat corrected and challenged.

It really struck me how American the anti-miscegenation drive is, and that it's specifically black-white relations that are such a problem here. Is there any other country that compares?

On this abstract racial principle of "black" and "white," there really is an exceptional situation in the U.S. In virtually every other country, people who in the U.S. would be considered "people of color" have lived together with white people without such prohibitions.

Even in South Africa, the legal prohibition on interracial marriage was short-lived. At the beginning of the last century, when the first prohibitions on interracial sex were enacted, they only affected black men going to white prostitutes -- that was the beginning of apartheid. Only after World War II was interracial marriage prohibited in South Africa, and that lasted 40 years.

Whereas prohibition of interracial marriage in the United States is pretty much the whole history of the country until 1967. That's a very dramatic difference.

What about different regions of the U.S.? Is it still true that, as Alain Locke wrote in 1916, "The North loves the Negro and dislikes Negroes, while the South hates the Negro and loves Negroes" is a generalization with a hint of truth?

Locke was looking at a relatively early stage of the migration of Southern blacks to the North, but even now you could find a bit of lip service paid to racial mixing from pro-integrationist Northerners who have little interracial contact, and you could find hostile white Southerners who have a lot of close contact with blacks. That is a paradox.

Nadine Gordimer was here a couple of years ago and one thing that she said struck her about Cambridge, Mass., was that the social life seemed to be much more segregated or monoracial than it was in South Africa.

Really? How so?

She was referring to dinner parties, or people hanging out, or clusters of groups going in one direction or another. In South Africa, one always had the sense that there was a big political thing that prohibited integration. Once that thing was dispelled, the social integration followed very quickly, at least for people like intellectuals, writers, academics. And that may not be the same case with some areas of the Northern United States.

In history class, we learn about the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but not about the case that ended the ban on interracial marriage, Loving vs. Virginia. It's a landmark case, but it isn't usually included as a part of the history of the civil rights movement. Why do you think that is?

It really isn't part of the common consciousness and it isn't celebrated. [The case involved an interracial couple, Mildred and Richard Loving, who were married in Washington, D.C., and then moved to Virginia, where their marriage was prohibited; the Lovings were awakened in their bed one night by a policeman and taken to jail. Mildred Loving, who was black, was widowed in 1975 when Richard, who was white, died in a car accident.] Once in a while a magazine will mention it. Emerge magazine, for example, had a celebratory piece in 1997, for the 30th anniversary of the decision. But it's really very low-key by comparison with the other landmarks.

When the Loving decision came out, it was during the Six-Day War in Israel and there were the urban riots in the United States, so it was an incredibly troubled national and international moment. Way in the back of the newspaper, among other decisions, Loving was mentioned. It didn't have a contemporary resonance. People didn't say, "Wow, it's really over."

It should still resonate -- it's the same issue that's now come up again with gay marriage. What happens if Hawaii says it's legally marrying gays, and everybody goes to Hawaii, gets married and tries to move back to Illinois?

Did blacks support overturning the ban?

In "An American Dilemma," Gunnar Myrdal pointed out that for blacks, interracial marriage was the lowest rung of what he called the "rank order of discrimination." The first things they wanted were equal legal treatment and voting rights and employment rights. The freedom to marry whites was always listed, but it was the last item that came to mind in terms of what one suffered during segregation. Whereas for white, liberal civil rights people, it was a pretty high-ranking item on the agenda.

Black resistance to interracial marriage comes up strongly in literature of the 1960s. The standard plot is that the black man gets divorced from a white woman. Then there are all the stories, which before were written from the white side, that started appearing from the black side also: worry about having children with someone outside of the race, about what the children's identity would be and so on.

What does literature add to the legal history?

When you look at Latin American myths of origin, they always involve mixed beginnings; for example, there's a marriage of a Portuguese and an Indian or something of that sort. The Brazilian founding myth involves three races. Mexico has three cultures.

By contrast, it seems odd -- especially in the age of multiculturalism in America -- to always focus on antagonistic stories that are based on one origin and then on conflict only. But there is also American literature out there that does very much what these Latin American founding myths do. There has been quite a bit of recent interest in the literature of "passing" and the literature of mixed-race alliances. And in a way, the gossip about presidents has a function similar to that literature.

You mean the stories about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson?

One has to have mythic stories. If Jefferson's family includes Sally Hemings' family, then America, much farther back, is a much more united country than the fiction of separate races permits us to consider. For that reason, the Jefferson-Hemings story has always been interesting to writers who were progressives on the racial front and were trying to address the problem of the color line. The Jefferson-Hemings story is particularly telling too, because this is the author of the Declaration of Independence, the whole root of the enterprise -- "All men are created equal."

In the introduction to "Interracialism," you suggest that the problem of the 21st century could be colorblindness, as opposed to what W.E.B. Du Bois said 100 years ago: "The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line."

There are two camps. On the one hand, colorblindness is a problem as long as social equality is not achieved. It might be a wonderful ideal to aim for, but one can't presume that we're now completely race neutral and we'll achieve social justice.

On the other hand, the "race blindness" camp is strong in saying, "Why should we perpetuate the very same categories that were used for such unbelievably sinister purposes? Wouldn't some other measures of addressing the injustice of the past be more appropriate?" Whenever somebody fills in the affirmative action form, they probably have that reaction -- "My God, why should I classify myself racially? Shouldn't we steer policies more toward a form of social equalization that will make these categories unnecessary?"

What's been going on with racial categories in the census is also interesting.

The census had two rules. One is the 1997 rule that permitted everyone to mark more than one box in the 2000 census. Then came the 2000 evaluation procedure, which allowed the census to classify anyone who marked more than one box as part of the "people of color" category -- if there was a white and color mix indicated.

Essentially, it's one thing to say that a person can fall into multiple racial categories, but what happens to all the people in the old categories? It can have some disastrous consequences now because in some states, apparently many white Americans found it fashionable to indicate that they were Native American. In some counties where Native Americans were a minority they may now end up as a majority. There are lots of headaches with counting and civil rights and voting rights and districting that are going to come in the next two years as a result of this census decision.

How will interracial relationships affect America demographically in the future?

The U.S. Census presumes that there is no interracial procreation going on. The predictions it makes about the future population of the United States are based on the assumption that after tonight at midnight, no further interracial relationship takes place. It is an absurd assumption. If we include the possibility of interracial procreation, the future population of the United States will look completely different from what the census predictions tell us now. The "browning of America by 2050" prediction, which says that whites will no longer be in the majority by 2050, assumes that procreation will happen only within the five affirmative action categories.

Why don't they take interracial marriage into account?

I really can't understand why this variable isn't put into play. They predict all kinds of things -- like whether more people will move to cities or fewer will move to cities. But they don't predict that after today there will be any children born to parents who fall into different race categories.

But if you acknowledge a mixed-race population, there's going to be an even larger future mixed-race population, even if you presume just a continuation of the last 10 years of interracial progeny.

Some people have the sense that more intermarriage will promote racial harmony.

Where we are now is just on the point of overcoming the legacy of a very long and exceptional set of prohibitions against interracial marriage. We're merely correcting a serious and long-lasting social block. There is beginning to be more reflection on the possibility of multiracial identity. I'm not a Utopian and I don't think there's anything necessarily superterrific that will come from that. I myself don't think that racial harmony is guaranteed by interracial marriage. But I think that racial disharmony was guaranteed by prohibiting it.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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