The Real American Love Story

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Oct. 5 1999 3:28 AM

The Real American Love Story

Why America is a lot less white than it looks.

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The PBS broadcast last month of An American Love Story--a 10-hour film about an interracial family--spawned a great deal of chatter to the effect that mixed-race couplings were the wave of the future. In fact, they are the wave of the past. Interracial marriages accounted for only 2.2 percent of all marriages in the Current Population Survey of 1992, a gain of only two-tenths of a percent over 1980, and the number of mixed couplings actually decreased slightly in 1991. The census pattern suggests that slightly more interracial couples will fall into each other's arms in the coming years but that there will be nothing resembling a dramatic acceleration of marriage across the color line.

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But America already has almost 400 years of race mixing behind it, beginning with that first slave ship that sailed into Jamestown harbor carrying slaves who were already pregnant by members of the crew. Americans have grudgingly accepted the fact that sex between masters and slaves such as Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings was frequent, leading to a many-hued race of people who do not look African at all, even though they call themselves "African-American." Outside of recent African immigrants to the United States, there are virtually no black Americans of purely African descent, which is to say no black people who lack white ancestry, left in this country.

Four centuries of race mixing have had a similar impact on Americans who define themselves as white. Convincing estimates show that by 1950 about one in five white Americans had some African ancestry. This inheritance most often arrived at the bedroom door in the form of a fair-skinned black person who had slipped over the color line to live as white. Put another way, most Americans with African blood in their veins think of themselves as white and conduct themselves as such--and check "white" when they fill out census forms.

How did so much "black" blood get into so many "white" people? Consider the story behind the 1967 case of Loving vs. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court overturned laws in 17 states that forbade black people and white people to marry. Richard Loving was white and Mildred Jeter was black. In 1958, weeks after the two were married, the Caroline County sheriff dragged them from their marriage bed and jailed them for the crime of being married. The Lovings were then exiled from Virginia under pain of imprisonment. In banishing the couple from the Old Dominion, the Caroline County judge said from the bench: "Almighty God created the races, white, black, yellow, Malay, and red and placed them on separate continents, and but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend the races to mix."

This statement would have been ludicrous anyplace but was especially laughable in Caroline County--and in the Lovings' hometown of Central Point, which had been an epicenter of race mixing for at least 200 years. There were many such centers in the South. In cities such as Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans, for example, white families and their fair-skinned black relatives lived so close together that they bumped into each other on the street. Mixed-race people were initially treated as a "new people" who existed in the space between white and black and deserved a status not quite as high as whites but higher than that of black people in general. This special status began to dry up just before the Civil War and evaporated when slavery ended and free blacks competed with whites for jobs and political power. White Southerners became obsessed with drawing an impossible line that would preserve white "racial purity"--another way of referring to white political dominance. The "one-drop rule" defined as black anyone who had any black ancestry at all, even if that ancestry was invisible to the naked eye or in the genealogical record. Those who fell on the black side of the law often lost the rights to vote, to hold high-status jobs, and to defend their persons and property in the courts.

The revocation of special mulatto rights accelerated the practice of passing for white. Central Point was locally known as the "passing capital of the world." Passing for white was so common there that a section of Central Point had actually been named "Passing.'' Some Central Pointers lived as negroes at home but crossed the line to seize white privileges just an hour or two away in Richmond, Va. Local children were often taken for white during excursions to nearby towns, where they shopped in stores that did not serve blacks and were admitted to the "white only" sections of movie houses.

Having learned the rewards of whiteness early, these children grew up, moved away, and continued the charade. Those who entered the armed forces, which were segregated until 1948, were often classified as white and attached to all-white units. This made for dicey moments when brown-skinned classmates from Central Point turned up in all-black units. Some of these former classmates kept the secret, but a few exposed the passers as frauds. Neither Britain nor France had laws that forbade interracial marriage, and people in those countries had no clue what the Yanks were going on about when they argued over who was really white or really black. To the French and the British, race was defined by what you looked like: If you looked white, well then, you were.

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B ack in Caroline County, soldiers who were passing were sure to travel home alone to prevent their white buddies from knowing who and what they were. The passers from Passing married white spouses, moved into white jobs, took up residence in white neighborhoods. When the couples returned to Central Point to visit, the town went along with the masquerade. Families ditched brown-skinned friends and relatives, and children stayed out of school to avoid being seen on the colored bus headed to the colored school. Principals and teachers stuck to the script. One of them told Ebony magazine in 1967 that blacks in Central Point had "infiltrated the white race more than any other group of Negroes. When a student plays hooky from school for a week and says an in-law is visiting the family, we understand. The kids just can't afford to catch the Negro school bus without giving away the racial identity."

This infiltration was common not just in Virginia but all over the United States. The most interesting document listed in the amicus briefs for Loving vs. Virginia is a statistical study called "African Ancestry of the White American Population" by Robert Stuckert, a sociologist and anthropologist from Ohio State University. Stuckert's statistical models are tough going, but eye-opening for what they show. Simply put, he examined census and fertility data to arrive at estimates of how many white Americans had African blood lines and how many fair-skinned blacks had crossed over the line to live as white. Stuckert's tables show that during the 1940s alone, roughly 15,550 fair-skinned blacks per year slipped across the color line--about 155,500 for the decade. Stuckert estimates that by 1950 about 21 percent of the whites--or about 28 million of the 135 million persons classified as "white" in the census--had black ancestry within the last four generations. He predicted that the proportion would only grow in the coming decades. The belief that one's ancestors are "racially uniform" is a basic American fiction, Stuckert wrote, but a fiction nonetheless.

Brent Staples is on the editorial board of the New York Times and is a member of Slate's book-reviewing team.

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