The term intermarriage typically refers to marriages between individuals of different socially constructed racial and ethnic groups. In the United States, however, these unions are usually defined as interracial. Such unions are often depicted as being between white and nonwhite persons, with an emphasis on white-black unions. Historically, interracial sexuality, especially between white women and nonwhite men, was forbidden in both public discourse and laws; it was legally and socially stigmatized. For white men, having sex with women of any race was acceptable as long as it was not public. Legal, political, and social restrictions against these relationships have existed at various times, and even in the early twenty-first century interracial marriage rates remain low, accounting for only 5.4 percent of all marriages in the country, according to the 2000 Census.
Maintaining racial purity within the white race has been the dominant discourse in marriage laws and intermarriage prohibitions. Historically, legal restrictions placed on inter-marriage and miscegenation have varied by state. In some states intermarriage was legal, while in others it was illegal. Miscegenation had been discouraged and treated as socially deviant since the arrival of African slaves in the American colonies, but it was not until 1691 that interracial sex was made illegal. Virginia passed the first statute against miscegenation between blacks and whites. The goal was to prevent “that abominable mixture and spurious issue which hereafter may increase in this dominion, as well by negroes, mulattoes, and Indians intermarrying with English, or other white women, as by their unlawful accompanying with one another” (Wadlington 1966, p. 1192).
Since the beginning of the sixteenth century, people involved in interracial sex have faced informal sanctions, punishment, and social exclusion. White women romantically or sexually involved with black men were punished, often by being banished from the colony or by being beaten and arrested. The political and social ideology centered on protecting white womanhood and demonizing black men, and free access to black women was largely held by white men in positions of power. These beliefs and social norms were never formally legalized, but the ideology penetrated the legal system. Interracial sex was constructed as deviant within the institution of slavery, and from the beginning this view was primarily aimed at preventing black male slaves from engaging in sexual relations with white women. The frequent abuse and lynching of black men for allegedly raping or desiring sexual relations with white women, as well as the widespread rape and sexual abuse of black women by white men, played an integral part in the socio-historical construction of race and the rules of race relations.
Legal sanctions, as opposed to social ones, were more often focused on interracial unions than on interracial sex. Indeed, interracial sex reified the racial divide and hierarchy through the sexual mistreatment of black women by white men, and through the severe punishment of black men who were sexually involved with a white woman. By 1940, thirty-one states had laws against interracial marriage, but only six had laws prohibiting interracial sex. But both laws and social sanctions against interracial sex and marriage were racist social constructions, formulated largely by white men to protect the “purity” of the white race and prevent racial mixture.
Interracial sex was also used as a symbol of white male privilege. Sex between black men and white women was punished, for these relations posed a threat to the power and privilege of white men. But sex between white men and black women did not threaten the white power structure, but instead reinforced the domination of white men up through the 1800s. White men had free access to black women, and these relations often involved rape or other forms of violence. Black women were oversexualized in the minds of white men, especially in contrast to white women. White men used this depiction to justify the idealization of the white woman, the degradation of black women, and the privilege awarded to white men, especially in terms of unlimited sexual access. Interracial sex did not challenge the purity of the white race because children born of white fathers and black mothers were demoted to slave status.
Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the social construction of racial categories and the increasing desire to quantify race, particularly blackness, led to frequent modifications in the legal and social status of interracial marriage and children born of interracial relations. Children born to a black parent and a white parent were forced to assume the mothers’ status: children of slave mothers assumed the slave status, while children of white mothers were sold as indentured servants until the age of thirty. White mothers of mixed-race children had to serve five years and were then banished from the colony. These sentences of servitude and banishment often varied over time and place. The first legal efforts to classify race came in a Virginia law of 1787, which stipulated that any person having one-fourth black blood, or having any grandparent who was black, was considered black. The legal quantification of blackness and of people of color was revised until it eventually came to include any person who is not white, so that “white” legally meant any person with no trace of any other blood besides Caucasian, and having even “one drop” of “black blood” defined a person as black.
At the same time, while the definition of racial categories became legal, so did the legal protection of white womanhood. In 1819 a code was passed in the southern United States that included the punishment of any attempted sexual relations or expressed desire for a white woman by a slave. While African Americans were the central focus of miscegenation laws, other men of color, notably Asians, were also targeted for racial exclusion. Chinese men, for example, were represented as threats to white womanhood. Congress passed laws restricting Chinese immigration even as the popular press presented them as sexually deviant and dangerous. Chinese women were also excluded, based on perceptions of them as prostitutes and sexually immoral. In 1875, Congress passed the Page Law, which forbade the entry of Chinese and other “Mongolian” prostitutes. Immigration restriction laws passed in 1903, 1907, and 1917 allowed for the deportation of Chinese women suspected of prostitution and defined Asian women as sexual objects.
Given that prostitution was widespread at this time, singling out Chinese women for “exclusion,” and portraying them as transmitters of diseases, drug addiction, and temptation of sin, was more about controlling the reproduction and sexuality of Asian women. Given the lack of available Asian women for Asian men to marry, Asian men were also constructed as a potential threat to white women. Therefore, antimiscegenation laws were enacted against interracial marriage in general, and specific laws forbade Asian-white intermarriage. Immigration laws concerning Chinese and Japanese immigration were also enacted to control and limit intermarriages. For example, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese from immigrating to the United States for ten years, thus eliminating most Chinese-white intermarrying. Similarly, the “Gentleman’s Agreement” with Japan was used to eliminate Japanese immigration to the United States by prohibiting Japanese laborers from obtaining passports.
The legal landscape of intermarriage and interracial relations remained divided and inconsistent until the 1960s. Support of the one-drop rule persisted, and laws regarding intermarriage were changed, revised, revoked, and reestablished until 1967. In 1960, when every southern state had a law against interracial marriage, the U.S. Census documented 51,409 black-white couples in the United States. And while the U.S Congress never outlawed miscegenation, forty-one out of fifty states had laws against interracial unions at some time in their history.
Changes in the racial landscape during the 1960s and 1970s were reflected in the legal support for interracial unions. The civil rights movement, grassroots political and social movements, and similar changing ideologies were the driving force behind the changing legal system. Legal support for interracial unions produced a significant increase in the number of black-white marriages between 1960 and 1970, when the total number of interracial marriages increased by 26 percent. Interracial couples remained mostly in the northern and western regions of the country, while the rate of interracial marriages in the South declined by 34 percent between 1960 and 1970.
The discrepancy among interracial marriages in the North and in the South may be due, in part, to the fact that most of the southern states had laws against interracial marriages until 1967. Most of the interracial marriages were between black men and white women. These marriages increased 61 percent from 1960 to 1970, while marriages between black women and white men decreased by 9 percent during this period. The issue of interracial sex and marriage is an integral part of the construction of race and racial groups, and the fear of interracial sexuality has often been used to justify racist ideologies and practices. The case of Emmett Till, a young black teenager who allegedly whistled at a white woman and was brutally murdered in 1955, attests to the enduring strength of the ideology of protecting white womanhood.
The historic 1967 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Loving v. Virginia changed the legal landscape of intermarriage permanently. Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Jeter, a black woman, left their home state of Virginia, where intermarriage was illegal, to get married in Washington, D.C. When they returned to Virginia they were arrested and sentenced to one year in prison. However, the judge suspended the sentence on the condition that the couple leave Virginia and not return for twenty-five years. The Lovings appealed the decision in a state court, but the ruling was upheld based on a previous case, in order for the state to “preserve the racial integrity of its citizens” and prevent “the obliteration of racial pride.” Previous essentialist thinking that interracial marriages were unnatural and deviant was heavily reliant upon “scientific” assertions about the genetic and biological hierarchy of the “races.”
Finally, the decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the ruling was overturned. Whereas Chief Justice Warren’s decision remained free of any controversial sociological or anthropological evidence or studies, the Loving case signaled the beginning of a change in interracial ideology within U.S. society. Racist ideologies that pervaded the legal system for more than three centuries were retracted. While these ideologies remained dominant in the larger society, they were no longer to be used to justify legal decisions. Although a majority of whites supported laws against interracial marriage, the decision to make laws forbidding interracial marriages unconstitutional legalized a relationship that had been criminalized in the United States since the seventeenth century (Romano 2003).
While the Loving v. Virginia case granted legal support to interracial marriages and initiated an increase in the number of interracial couples, antimiscegenation ideology persisted and adapted to the continuously changing racial landscape. In Race Mixing (2003), Renee Romano reports that in 1970, 56 percent of southern whites and 30 percent of nonsouthern whites supported laws against interracial relationships. Though support for antimiscegenation laws had decreased
by 1990, social tolerance for interracial marriage was still reminiscent of antimiscegenation ideology. Robin Goodwin and Duncan Cramer report in Inappropriate Relationships (2002) that 61 percent of white Americans polled in 1991 said they would oppose a union between a close family member and a black person. At the same time, two-thirds of black Americans said they would neither support nor oppose an interracial marriage between a family member and a white person.
Researchers have looked in great depth at interracial marriage and various aspects of interracial couples or families. This research has tended to use either psychological or sociological theories to explain how or why the couples came together. In addition, the characteristics of the couples, including their demographic similarities and differences, have been examined.
The Assimilationist Approach . Much of the research relies on an assimilationist framework, using intermarriage as an indicator of assimilation of the minority group or a site of comparison with same-race couples. The noted race scholars Michael Omi and Howard Winant argue that this assimilationist framework arose as an “ethnicity-based theory” in the early twentieth century as a response to biologically based theories of race. This ethnicity-based paradigm includes the debate between an assimilationist perspective, beginning with Robert Park’s race relations cycle in 1964, and the concept of cultural pluralism, which was introduced by Horace Kallen in 1924 and focuses on the acceptance of different cultures. Omi and Winant note that this framework has a number of shortcomings, especially when discussing black-white interracial marriage. In particular, it tends to use an immigrant analogy for racial groups, it reduces race to ethnicity, and it does not take into consideration the different ways racial groups are constructed and conceptualized within society.
These various studies on interracial couples all express or imply that interracial couples are inherently different from same-race couples, therefore making it necessary to explain, account for, or describe their relationships. Studies that use an assimilationist framework are problematic because they “uncritically take race as a given reality (and) contribute to the reification of race as a foundation beyond cultural interrogation” (Ferber 1998, p. 11). Underlying this work is the assumption that distinct racial groups exist in the first place, and can thus engage in “interracial” marriage. By comparing interracial couples to same-race couples, same-race couples are established as the “standard” or the “norm.” It is only within a society such as America, which places such an emphasis on race and racial groups, that the idea of an interracial couple has meaning.
Within an assimilationist framework that focuses on the couple, interracial marriage is seen as the final stage of assimilation, a sign of improving race relations that can mask any opposition that may exist towards the couple. As Stanford Lyman argues, the assimilation model of race relations “was ideology too, for Park believed that once the racial cycle was completed, the social arena would be cleared of those racial impediments interfering with the inevitable class struggle” (Lyman 1997, p. 27).
Psychological Measures . Interracial sexuality and marriage have also been explained using psychological approaches and theories. Different “racial motivation” theories state that interracial marriages occur because of racial differences, rather than in spite of them (see Kouri and Laswell 1993, p. 242). Among interracial couples; the white partner is usually argued to be involved in the relationship as a result of some neurotic conflictor pathology, or as an act of rebellion and punishment against his or her family. One example of this type of racial motivation theory is classic Freudian theory, which explains black-white intermarriage as a function of the inadequate “repression” of attraction to the opposite-sex parent.
It is suggested that a black man and white woman, by marrying, can manage their Oedipal/incest fantasies, satisfy beliefs of sexual and sensual superiority, and provide themselves the opportunity to act out racial hostility through sexual behavior. Low self-esteem and guilt theories have also been offered to explain the motives of blacks and whites who intermarry. Interracial marriage has sometimes been viewed as a “deviant” behavior, and those who intermarry are labeled deviant, psychologically disturbed, or maladjusted individuals whose behaviors require explanation. The “motives” for engaging in the act of intermarrying are seen as a product of something distinctive to the individual and his or her psychological history, usually a result of a certain instinctive drive. Yet it is important to consider how deviance is a consequence of the application of rules and sanctions by others to an “offender.” Howard Becker, in his book Outsiders (1963), notes that the crucial dimension is the societal reaction to an act, not any quality of the act itself.
Socioeconomic Factors . There have also been many studies about the individual traits and characteristics of blacks and whites who intermarry, examining similarities or differences in education, employment, involvement in social activities, recreation, residential area, and socioeconomic status. One study done in 2000 sought to examine factors that might influence interracial marriage such as immigration, age, college attendance, socioeconomic status, region and military service (Heaton and Jacobson 2000). In a 1997 study, Richard Lewis and colleagues looked at the role that nonracial and racial factors play in spouse selection among those who are interracially married. The goal was to determine whether nonracial factors, such as socioeconomic status, common social and entertainment interests, and personal evaluation of attractiveness, are more or less important than racial factors, such as the excitement and novelty of being interracially married and the sexual attractiveness of someone of the “opposite” race (Lewis et al. 1997). Based on surveys of 292 respondents, they concluded that nonracial factors are more important in the spouse selection process than racial factors.
Interracial couples come together for varied reasons, just as same-race couples do, and race or racial factors do not necessarily play a primary role in the couples coming together. When looking at interracial marriage, it is important to consider the socially constructed nature of racial categories, and at how interracial marriage remains an issue because “race” still matters. In a race-conscious society such as America, even when whites and blacks are similar in terms of education, employment, recreation, socioeconomic status, and other factors, the perceived and ascribed racial differences remain a deterrent to intermarriage. Furthermore, because most blacks and whites do not inhabit the same areas, acquire similar education and employment levels, and are involved in different social activities, the focus of these studies should be on the structural constraints that prevent or discourage black-white proximity and intermarriage—such as segregation in residential areas and segregation and racial discrimination in schools, the workplace, and other institutions— rather than focusing on those individuals who do engage in interracial relationships.
One major concept that has been used to explain interracial marriage is “hypergamy.” Defined as the marriage of a female to a male of a higher caste or class standing, hypergamy has been a major theoretical thread in the study of interracial marriage. Using this type of theory to understand interracial relationships emphasizes that these couples come together primarily because black men who have a higher socioeconomic status can marry a white woman of lower socioeconomic status, and thereby exchange his class standing for her socially defined superior racial status. Recent studies have also used the hypergamy argument to explain intermarriage. In a 1993 article titled “Trends in Black/White Intermarriage,” Matthijs Kalmijn found that racial caste prestige and socioeconomic prestige still function as substitutes in the selection process of mates for interracial marriages.
These studies, however, have been faulted because they do not address cultural factors when considering the low rates of intermarriage for black women. These factors include the disturbing history of sexual relations between black women and white men; the lack of power of black women in society relative to whites, and even to black men; the white standard of beauty that devalues black women; and the opposition to intermarriage reported by black women in attitudinal studies.
Studies that address the issue of interracial families or couples from a personal perspective offer insight into the difficulties that interracial couples and families can still face. Research on interracial couples also includes in-depth interviews with black-white couples, which provides information about the couples’ relationships, their parenting experiences, what the partners learn from each other, the role of race in the relationships, and the “special blessings” of being an interracial couple. Other works have documented the contemporary experiences of interracial couples and changing societal attitudes and behaviors, which reveal that while interracial couples are more acceptable in the twenty-first century, significant opposition remains.
Nearly forty years after the ban on interracial marriages was considered unconstitutional, interracial marriages have increased. The 2000 U.S. Census found there were 287,576 interracial marriages in the United States, making up about .53 percent of the total number of marriages. Marriages between black men and white women are still far more common than those between white men and black women, of which there were about 78,778 in 2000. These numbers are reflective of the remaining racial ideologies that inform societal
understandings of interracial relationships and, more specifically, individuals involved in interracial relationships.
The U.S. Census documents all interracial couples and marriages, including marriages between Asian, Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islander, and multiracial individuals. Socially constructed perceptions of interracial dating also include white-Hispanic, and white-Asian marriages as interracial couples. The 2000 U.S. Census documented 504,119 white-Asian marriages. Marriage between a white person and a person of Hispanic origin are difficult to document. The socially constructed nature of racial categories in America leaves the definition of race and interracial couples ambiguous. On the 2000 Census, individuals could identify themselves racially as one or more of the following: Black or African American, White, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaska Native, or Some Other Race. People of Hispanic origin, however, could identify themselves as belonging to one or more of these racial categories as well as indicating their Hispanic origin, which is classified as an ethnic category, not a racial one, by the Census Bureau. Yet couples with one Hispanic partner and one non-Hispanic partner are often thought of as interracial, reinforcing the idea that any white-nonwhite couple is an interracial couple. (The 2000 Census counted 924,352 Hispanic-white marriages, a higher number than any “interracial” pairing.) Though Hispanic is not a race, it is often socially considered a racial group. Hispanic-white intermarriage is the highest amount of all intergroup marriage, due to the ambiguity of race and the definitions of race.
Interracial relationships have long been viewed as a sign of improving race relations and assimilation, yet these unions have also been met with opposition from whites and other racial groups. While the number of interracial couples continues to rise, this does not signify a complete transformation of societal ideologies and ideas. While significant changes have occurred in the realm of race relations, U.S. society still has racial borders. Most citizens live and socialize with others of the same race, even though there are no longer such legal barriers as laws against intermarriage. The relatively low numbers of interracial couples in the United States attests to the continual reproduction and construction of dominant racial ideologies. While the ability of two individuals of different races to love each other cannot change the social structure of race, the societal responses to these relationships (e.g., the images produced, the discourses used, the meanings attached) provides insight into the social and political hierarchy of race. Issues concerning the children of interracial marriages, the racism the couple will encounter from the larger society, the disapproval of the family, and traditional ideas of race mixing are all used to challenge the formation of interracial relationships. Interracial couples are continuously being constructed not only through the couples’ experiences, but through larger society, including the family, neighborhood, community, church, school, workplace, and other social institutions.
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Stephanie M. Laudone
Erica Chito Childs