Interracial Intimacy: The Regulation of Race and Romanceby Rachel F. Moran
As late as the 1960s, states could legally punish minorities who either had sex with or married persons outside of their racial groups. In this first comprehensive study of the legal regulation of interracial relationships, Rachel Moran grapples with the consequences of that history, candidly confronting its profound effects on not only conceptions of race and
As late as the 1960s, states could legally punish minorities who either had sex with or married persons outside of their racial groups. In this first comprehensive study of the legal regulation of interracial relationships, Rachel Moran grapples with the consequences of that history, candidly confronting its profound effects on not only conceptions of race and identity, but on ideas about sex, marriage, and family.
"A good introduction to an issue too often overlooked. . . . The writing is clear and accessible, the evidence is evocative, and the ideas are challenging."—Beth Kiyoko Jamieson, Law and Politics Book Review
"U. S. government bodies have tried to regulate interracial intimacy from the day Pocahontas married John Rolfe up through Loving v. Virginia, which found antimiscegentation laws unconstitutional in 1967. . . . The weirder anecdotes from our racial history enliven this study, which is likely to become a classic in its field."—Publishers Weekly
"Moran examines the history of U. S. regulation of cross-racial romance, considering the impact of that regulation on the autonomy of individuals and families as well as on racial identity and equality. . . . She is attuned to the nuances of race in this polyglot nation, and supplies thoughtful analysis of these nuances."—Booklist
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Interracial Intimacy: the Regulation of Race & Romance
By Rachel F. Moran
University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2001 Rachel F. Moran
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Insights from Interracial Intimacy
In the past few years, a spate of books has described the unique experience of growing up in an interracial family. In Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black, Gregory Howard Williams (now dean at the Ohio State University School of Law) remembers life with a black father and white mother. In his earliest years, he believed that he was white and that his father was a dark-skinned ethnic. Later, when his parents' restaurant business failed, he discovered that his father was actually a light-skinned black man. Destitute and desperate, his father took Williams and his brother to live with their black relatives in Muncie, Indiana. His parents' marriage fell apart, and later, when his mother married a white man, she returned to ask Williams and his brother to live with her new family. Williams writes:
The conditions for becoming part of her life became very clear to me. We could reenter her world if we rejected the one in which we had lived for the past ten years.. . . Gaining acceptance to her world required that we deny our black heritage and pretend that the people and circumstances of our life in Muncie did notexist. We were to forget we were "colored" boys. She expected us to move back into her life without a past, with- out roots, without feelings for the people who had sheltered and cared for us when our need was greatest. I knew that was something we could never do.But Williams was wrong. His brother did choose to share his mother's life, even though Williams himself declined an offer that had come "too late" and "felt farther away from [his] mother than [he] had at any time in [his] life." The brothers made different choices, but each confronted the terrible riddle that a child's heart poses: How could a father's son not be his mother's little boy? Williams's story illustrates the unique lessons about race and intimacy that interracial intimacy can yield. Williams and his brother must struggle to form personal identities in a segregated world. Opposition to interracial marriage makes their parents' wedding a deviant act and their father's racial background a dirty secret. By degrading a black heritage, official policies of segregation diminish the children's own personhood. Neither Williams nor his brother is free to embrace a satisfying identity because enforced inequality and segregation limit their options for personal development. They confront these harms in an arena generally regarded as critical to the formation of self-- their family.
In Williams's story, at least three ideas of race compete as ways to explain identity. First, Williams can rely on genotype, discovering his identity by tracing his ancestral racial affiliations. His mother is white, and his father is black. Under a one-drop rule that says that any trace of African ancestry makes him black, he too is black. Yet this approach leaves him feeling uncomfortable, for it erases his mother's contribution to his identity. Alternatively, Williams can look to phenotype--that is, his physical appearance. This approach also has limitations. Light-skinned enough to pass, Williams can be white with his mother, but if he returns to his father's side of the family, he becomes black. For Williams, phenotype, like genotype, yields an uncertain and contingent racial identity. Finally, Williams can rely on his sense of social connection, or loyalty, to decide his identity. In the end, he chooses to remain with his father as a "colored" boy, but the price of doing so is a deep estrangement from his mother. His brother opts to build social connections with his mother, but only at the cost of a loss of contact with his father. Once again, neither choice is clearly truer to the children's racial identity.
Williams's story also illustrates the problems that interracial relationships pose in defining racial equality. Advocates of colorblindness insist that the government must be indifferent to race in all its decision-making to ensure equality. In their view, even color-conscious remedial efforts like desegregation and affirmative action betray America's commitment to individual liberty and equal treatment. Proponents of color-consciousness, on the other hand, argue that the color line still exists and cannot be ignored. For them, the ideal of colorblindness has been betrayed by centuries of segregation and discrimination. Justice rings hollow when the principle is held up as inviolable mainly when remedial steps are at stake. For Williams, the debate is oddly misplaced. His parents have already crossed the racial divide. His family and he himself defy easy categorization in a world in which race is treated as an important and largely impenetrable social boundary. In a world in which race matters, it is hard to know how to establish the minimum conditions of personhood that will allow Williams to pursue a life unencumbered by the vestiges of past discrimination. Will a formal policy of colorblindness truly set Williams free? Will color-conscious remedies rigidify the hard choices he must make between the privileges of whiteness in his mother's world and the solidarity and community of his father's? If racial identity cannot be ignored, must Williams choose to be either white or black, even though the color line divides him to the bone? Or is it possible for him to forge a multiracial identity despite the fact that, by virtue of race, his mother and father occupy widely disparate worlds?
To treat Williams's account as a story only about race, though, is to do him an injustice. For his recollections also are about love. Americans prize the freedom to shape their closest relationships, for they understand that interpersonal associations play a critical role in shaping identity. Forced intimacy is frightening not just because friends or lovers may be incompatible but also because the arrangements violate a fundamental sense of self. Even as children, Williams and his brother are asked to choose between their mother and father, a choice that will be critical to the development of their identity. Although this freedom to choose is quintessentially individualist, there is no easy way to gauge which brother made the right decision based on personal development, racial loyalties, or filial love. If Williams's brother weighed the costs and benefits of living with his mother, does that make him an opportunist who capitalized on racial inequality? Or is his approach a rational way to evaluate parental fitness and his own best interest? Is Williams the better brother because he made his decision based on loyalty to those who cared for him in a time of need, or does his choice acquiesce in racial isolation? In the end, is the effort to compare the brothers' choices incoherent because each brother simply loved his parents in ways that were wholly subjective, immeasurable, and unique?
History, Law, and Interracial Relationships
The story of Gregory Howard Williams clearly shows how interracial relationships can shed light on questions of both racial equality and freedom to marry and build families. As the next three chapters will demonstrate, the freedom to love across the color line is a relatively recent phenomenon in American history. From colonial times until the mid 1900s, antimiscegenation laws banning interracial sex and marriage were a common feature of state law. Although the statutes typically criminalized interracial intimacy, penal sanctions served different functions at different times. During the colonial era, white indentured servants often worked in close proximity to black slaves, so that intermixing was bound to occur. Interracial relationships threatened to muddy the divide between black and white, slave and free. To keep these distinctions clear, antimiscegenation laws treated sex and marriage across racial boundaries as antisocial, dangerous acts. In the process, these laws defined both whiteness and blackness.
Eventually the challenge to the color line based on interracial sex and marriage was resolved by establishing a one-drop rule that mandated that any person with a trace of African ancestry was black. Yet even with the color line firmly in place, antimiscegenation laws persisted after the Civil War and Reconstruction, despite efforts to dismantle racial inequalities in public life. Indeed, laws prohibiting intermarriage were expanded to cover other groups, most notably Asian immigrants in the western United States. The racial identities of Asians had been clearly spelled out under federal immigration laws, which labeled the newcomers nonwhite and ineligible for citizenship. In these circumstances, antimiscegenation laws were necessary not to consolidate racial identity but to preserve racial hierarchy. By barring blacks and Asians from marrying whites, the laws ensured that these groups would have no access to white privilege through social contact and inheritance of family wealth.
Although antimiscegenation laws sought to draw racial boundaries and preserve racial privilege, they also were markers of racial ambiguity. The blurring of some racial divisions expanded opportunities to marry across the color line and challenged racial hierarchies. For example, far fewer laws covered Native Americans, who often had mingled with white settlers during the early years of settlement when white women were scarce and tribal alliances highly advantageous. As a result, some prominent early American families had Native American ancestry. Virginia's antimiscegenation law, for example, contained a provision known as the "Pocahontas exception," so that descendants of the famous John Rolfe could be assured of their whiteness. Moreover, no antimiscegenation laws ever covered Latinos. Again, in the Southwest, substantial intermarriage occurred during the early years of contact between Anglo settlers and Mexican natives. Later, when the United States annexed portions of Mexico, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo assured former Mexican citizens of equal treatment if they remained and became American citizens. As a result, formal restrictions on intermarriage were not promulgated, although marriage registrars often used their informal discretion to deny marriage licenses to Latinos who appeared "too dark" to marry whites. By criminalizing some forms of intermarriage and not others, antimiscegenation laws offered a flexible tool to contain and accommodate the ambiguity engendered by interracial relationships.
Although usually understood as racial legislation, bans on interracial marriage also sent a clear message that some members of the population could not be trusted to make responsible decisions about sex and marriage. Very often, fears of libertinism correlated with the arrival of newcomers who were perceived as degraded and different. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, for instance, urbanization broke down traditional means of regulating sexuality in small, rural communities. Newcomers, both immigrant and black, flocked to the cities, and white elites feared the collapse of social decency in the resulting hubbub. With increasing anonymity in urban centers, men could readily exploit poor, working women in factories and boardinghouses as well as patronize prostitutes in burgeoning sex districts. To contain this wayward sexuality, social hygiene reformers demanded increased regulation of sexual practices. As part of this reform effort, antimiscegenation laws proliferated. The statutes made clear that interracial sex and marriage remained highly deviant and dangerous even in a newly cosmopolitan America. Indeed, in red-light districts, the Black and Tan clubs serving patrons with a taste for sex across the color line were among the farthest removed from respectable residential and business districts. This way, no one could accidentally wander in to be corrupted by intimate interracial contact. Customers already had to be intent on pursuing illicit pleasures to find a Black and Tan. Restrictions on sexuality and marriage during this period became a way to contain deviance and protect moral decency by defining the parameters of white respectability.
The central importance of the regulation of intimacy in defining racial identity, establishing racial inequality, and preserving moral propriety is evident from the longevity of antimiscegenation laws. As chapter 5 will show, these statutes endured from the colonial era until the twentieth century, despite efforts to promote racial equality and to deregulate sex and marriage. During Reconstruction, the state high court in Alabama declared a ban on intermarriage unconstitutional but reversed itself shortly thereafter. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld an antimiscegenation statute in Pace v. Alabama in 1883, thereby cementing the doctrine of "separate but equal" marriages and families. Only one state court declared antimiscegenation laws unconstitutional after the Pace decision. In 1948, the California Supreme Court in Perez v. Sharp concluded that prohibition of interracial marriage violated the principle of racial equality and interfered with the liberty to choose a spouse. The U.S. Supreme Court did not reach a similar conclusion for another twenty years. In 1967, in an opinion by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court unanimously held in Loving v. Virginia that antimiscegenation laws unconstitutionally discriminated on the basis of race in violation of equal protection and that they interfered with the fundamental right to marry under the due process clause. Warren's opinion contained two distinct themes: a commitment to racial equality and a commitment to marital autonomy.
Over three decades have passed since Warren wrote the Loving decision. The question arises: Was the decision a success? Chapters 6, 7, and 8 of this book will try to answer this question by examining contemporary debates about interracial marriage, transracial adoption and interracial custody disputes, and multiracial identity. Those who advocate colorblindness in official policy about sex, marriage, and family will reply that Loving was an unambiguous success. Registrars no longer deny marriage licenses based on racial considerations, and some jurisdictions have even stopped keeping track of racial identity when granting licenses. The only problem with Loving, in their view, is that it has not swept broadly enough to bring an end to such practices as race-matching in adoption or racial recordkeeping on the census.
Yet others who look to contemporary patterns of marriage and family doubt that Loving has in fact been so successful in curing problems of racial discrimination. After three hundred years of antimiscegenation laws, it would be surprising if thirty years of official colorblindness have truly rendered race irrelevant in the choice of a marital or sexual partner. In fact, most Americans continue to choose a spouse of the same race. According to 1997 congressional testimony by Mary Waters, a sociology professor at Harvard University, over 93 percent of whites and blacks choose same-race partners, as do 70 percent of Asians and Latinos and 33 percent of Native Americans. Because of these marital patterns, Americans generally grow up in racially homogenous families and report a single racial affiliation when asked to identify themselves. According to this view, race-matching in adoption and racial recordkeeping on the census simply reflect patterns of intimate behavior that remain highly color-conscious. The lawyerly response to this critique of Loving points out that the Justices addressed only official policy, not private behavior. But, for some Americans, the gap between formal rhetoric and informal practice is uncomfortable and disturbing. For every interracial romance that fails to blossom and for every interracial family that fails to form, there is the haunting possibility that the racial divide remains so wide that love is unfree.
Race and Equality
In evaluating the history of antimiscegenation laws, their judicial dismantlement, and contemporary controversies about interracial intimacy, this book will explore the meaning of race and racial equality and their relationship to personal autonomy. The three competing notions of race--genotype, phenotype, and social ties--that bedeviled Gregory Howard Williams in his search for a coherent identity are linked to inconsistent governmental policies regarding the relevance of race. Under a colorblind approach, officials must ignore race because it is presumptively irrelevant to individual merit. Race is nothing but an accident of birth, for children cannot choose their genealogy. As a matter of physical appearance, race manifests itself only in superficial differences like hair color and texture, skin color, and eye folds. Framed as a biological irrelevancy, race is no more germane to winning a government contract, getting a job, or gaining a seat at a public university than small ears or a freckled complexion. Yet, if race is defined in terms of its social consequences, its relevance to official decisions becomes complicated. If genotype and phenotype have been the basis for past state-supported discrimination, then these traits can be used to identify members of groups who have suffered historical wrongs. Race, defined in terms of ancestry or appearance, becomes a convenient proxy for victims of exclusionary policies and practices. As a result, in making amends for past harms, officials can adopt color-conscious policies that treat race as relevant.
Desegregation and affirmative action are the most common examples of color-conscious corrective justice. Precisely because these programs rest on a social rather than a biological understanding of race, they have been highly controversial. According to the programs' defenders, because race was wrongly used to segregate individuals in identifiable neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces, the government stands guilty of social engineering. These wrongs must be cured like a bad hangover with a "hair of the dog." That is, a massive reliance on race to do harm must be cured with a modest reliance on race to do good. Critics of desegregation and affirmative action allege that official demands for racial balance are as misplaced as folklore remedies: The programs do no more than replace one form of social engineering with another. A policy of forced separation is simply supplanted by one of forced togetherness.
Excerpted from Interracial Intimacy: the Regulation of Race & Romance by Rachel F. Moran Copyright © 2001 by Rachel F. Moran. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Rachel F. Moran is the Robert D. and Leslie-Kay Raven Professor of Law at the University of California School of Law, Berkeley.
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