Shortly after Europeans first arrived in America in the mid-1600s to colonize the region that would become the United States, the issue of race mixing arose. The concept of race itself was then just emerging in its modern form, but European thinkers drawing from firsthand accounts of encounters with Native Americans and Africans began debating the meaning and scope of the physiological and cultural differences among people from different regions of the world. The conception that eventually won out understood racial difference to be real, intrinsic to individuals, and linked to hierarchies of status and capability.
In addition to the well-known case of Pocahontas, the Powhatan woman who entered into a formal European marriage in 1614 with an English settler and traveled to England before her untimely death, there are many documented instances of intermarriage and other sexual connections between Native Americans and European settlers. Although unions between Native American women and European men were more likely to be acknowledged and accepted, occasionally European women partnered with assimilated Native American men or joined Native American tribes. As time passed partnerings between Native American men and white women became less acceptable culturally, and by the late 1700s these types of partnerings gave rise to a stock story that a variety of Native American tribes readily kidnapped and assimilated white women forcibly. (James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans provides an example of this type of narrative.) Still, even as late as the twentieth century, descendants of prominent families in southeastern states such as Virginia and Alabama related family stories of their descent from early male European settlers and “Indian princesses.”
Race mixing between Africans and Europeans in the colonial era was also initially a matter of debate and confusion rather than censure. Records dating back to the mid-1600s suggest that colonial officials struggled to sort out whether sexual relations between slaves and white indentured servants were legally problematic. By the late 1600s several colonies had begun to regulate against relationships between white women and slave men by rendering them as crimes, shifting the status of white women involved with black men to that of slaves rather than free or indentured persons or by fixing the status of children produced in such relationships as slaves. By the dawn of the 1700s the legal status of slavery had been more firmly fixed, and the descendants of slaves were understood by most people in the southern colonies to be slaves themselves, absent formal emancipation by their owners.
Despite the centrality of slavery and its increasing connection to blackness, European conceptualization of race mixing in the Caribbean and Latin American colonies did not initially rest upon a rigid bifurcation between white and black. As early as the seventeenth century white Spaniards and their descendants living in Mexico developed the concept of casta, a classificatory scheme for race mixing that categorized individuals by descent. In addition to introducing the categories of “quadroon” and “octoroon,” designating individuals with three white and one black grandparents and seven white and one black great-grandparents respectively, such schemes provided means of taxonomizing by name various degrees of native and black ancestry. These categories had real legal consequences for the status and rights of individuals placed in them—in but one example, the required amount of tribute paid to the Spanish Crown varied on the basis of one’s racial classification, and that variance marked individuals as belonging to particular classes and holding particular statuses.
At this point the cultural and legal differences between relationships involving white men and black women versus black men and white women became more distinct. Although both types of relationships had the capacity to produce children, intimate connections between white women and black men gradually became perceived as more worthy of censure, based on culturally embedded beliefs about the threat of black masculinity and the need to protect white femininity. Interracial intimacy between slave women and white men became defined as undesirable and occasionally scandalous conduct on the part of the white men, but the legal system did not define it as a crime even if the relationship was overtly coercive or violent; the children born from such relationships were universally understood to be slaves. (Same-sex interracial intimacy was not formally recognized or regulated other than under the general rubric of same-sex sexual intimacy, which was often culturally and legally effaced when between women and punished as sodomy when between men.)
In the Revolutionary era in the United States, blacks experienced a brief taste of a more egalitarian ideology as several northern states abolished slavery or set it on a course for extinction after the freedom of the United States had been won. Some states experimented with extending the franchise to blacks and women as well. By the 1820s, however, this openness had dissipated completely as the franchise was withdrawn in state after state and southern pressures to protect and defend the institution of slavery increasingly led to harsh application of fugitive slave laws. Nonetheless, by the 1820s a substantial and growing mixed-race population was established in the United States. Descendants of blacks and whites were called mulattoes, although some scientists who studied race in the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America persisted with intricate classification schemes for various combinations of black, native, and white ancestry. Mulattoes were at the time understood to be a distinct race but one more closely related to the African race than the white race. In some circles in the South, mulattoes were particularly prized as house servants or concubines.
At the same time, although some descendants of Native Americans and whites assimilated into white communities and gradually forgot their mixed-race heritage over the generations, some tribes actively embraced mixed-race individuals and defined them as wholly Indian. In some regions of the South small communities composed of the descendants of free blacks and Native Americans who had resisted removal began to establish themselves. The Seminole Indians of Florida, Georgia, and Alabama are an example. Eventually the United States became frustrated with the Seminoles’ refusal to cede their land and move west, and the government entered into a long and vicious war to remove them forcibly, which was won only through the U.S. Army’s betrayal and capture of the Seminoles’ leader under a false truce.
As sectional conflict worsened, understandings of race and racial difference shifted toward a harder line based in emerging scientific theories about the superiority of the white race and the inferiority of other races. As scientists began to argue for a rigid hierarchy of physical, emotional, and intellectual fitness among the races, they also began to warn of the dangers of race mixing. In the 1840s and 1850s Debow’s Review, a southern agricultural and social journal, began to publicize much of this work, including various versions of the theory that the mixedrace descendants of white and black parents were inferior. As scientific debates hardened racial categories and separated them more broadly, new theories emerged about the dangers of racial mixing.
This scientific anxiety reflected and reinforced social and cultural anxieties about race mixing, which became increasingly disfavored. Although some black men accused of engaging in intercourse with white women were able to avoid severe punishment even in the South, such connections increasingly were framed as rape. And although white men continued to have the legal authority to exercise sexual control over slave women, many southern states passed laws limiting white slave owners’ ability to free their slaves and give them substantial property, actions that white men occasionally took to benefit their enslaved sexual partners and children. By the time of the Civil War many southern states had adopted rules that allowed property to pass to enslaved individuals by will only if they were first freed and then sent out of the state or the country.
Anxieties about race mixing ran high among whites as slavery was abolished and the possibility for a new, more egalitarian, political order arose. Two Democratic newspaper editors sought to capitalize on these anxieties by secretly publishing a pamphlet extolling the virtues and benefits of race mixing, coining the word miscegenation to refer to the practice; they sent copies of the pamphlet to prominent Republicans in the hopes that some would endorse it. Although the plot failed, the term quickly became part of the public lexicon, and despite an intense constitutional struggle in the early postbellum years, bans on interracial marriage were passed and upheld across the South. Through the remainder of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, these bans spread into the western states as well.
Bans on interracial intimacy took different forms. Some states, such as Alabama, broadly criminalized attempts at intermarriage, interracial adultery, and interracial fornication between blacks and whites as felonies, and the courts interpreted these bans to bar sexual relationships that paralleled legitimate same-race marital relationships. Other southern states such as Florida made intermarriage between blacks and whites a serious crime but left interracial fornication at the level of a misdemeanor offense. Western states often incorporated a bewildering array of racial groups in their injunctions against interracial intimacy between whites and people of color; Native Americans were prohibited from marrying whites in many states, but the western coastal states also barred marriages between whites and Asians, whites and Hawaiians, and whites and Filipinos.
Through the first three decades of the twentieth century, cultural and legal definitions of race increasingly moved toward eliminating the broad array of terms for mixed-race individuals in favor of a limited range of rigid categories. The category of mulatto gradually disappeared in favor of a strict separation between black and white, with those formerly considered to be mulattoes reclassified as black. Although communities of racially ambiguous individuals with Native American, white, and black ancestors persisted in southern rural areas, they increasingly had to operate under difficult conditions of fitting into the legal regime of segregation, which presupposed a black-white binary universe.
The bans on interracial marriage fell to judicial attack, first in California’s 1948 state court ruling in Perez v. Sharp that such bans violated the Fourteenth Amendment and then nationally in 1967 when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Loving v. Virginia that Virginia’s antimiscegnation statute was unconstituional. In conjunction with this, however, state legislatures in the West had been removing bans in the 1950s; by the time Loving was announced, only the Old South retained statutory bans. Although further judicial action was necessary to enforce the rule of Loving in a few southern states, by 1970 the legal struggle was essentially over regarding marriage. Social acceptability of interracial relationships required more time, and even in the early twenty-first century marriages between blacks and whites comprise only a small percentage of marriages in the United States.
Controversy over race mixing arose again over proposals to add a mixed-race category to the 2000 census, which allowed individuals to select more than one race as an identifier. Nearly seven million Americans identified themselves as mixed race or multiracial.
SEE ALSO Miscegenation; Sex, Interracial
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