The incredible staying power of the laws against interracial marriage.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
June 17 2008 11:39 AM

White Weddings

The incredible staying power of the laws against interracial marriage.

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The end of slavery should have made things better. It didn't. In the South, the federal government initially forced the removal of the bans in several states. But when federal troops pulled out, the bans returned, along with a whole complex of new discriminatory laws known as Jim Crow. In the West, 13 states passed new laws against interracial marriage, many of them targeting white-Asian unions along with white-black ones. Only in the North did laws against intermarriage draw real fire, coming off the books in Maine, Michigan, Ohio, and Rhode Island.

Still, even in the most enlightened areas, mixed-race couples faced enormous social stigma. Clerks refused to issue marriage licenses to mixed couples, and ministers often wouldn't marry them. Couples that did marry faced harassment from employers and neighbors. In 1944, Gunnar Myrdal, in An American Dilemma, noted that "even a liberal-minded Northerner of cosmopolitan culture will, in nine cases out of ten, express a definite feeling against" interracial marriage. It was, he said, a "consecrated taboo" that "fixed" the boundary between the races.

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That changed slowly with the civil right movement, which reshaped the nation's consciousness. In 1967, an interracial married couple named Richard and Mildred Loving brought to the Supreme Court a suit against Virginia, claiming the right to live there. The court sided with them unanimously, decreeing the ban unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. The fortuitously named Loving decision took its place in law books, but not necessarily in practice. Where no one had the wherewithal to stand up for it—say, in rural Alabama—Loving was flouted.

Precisely as white racists feared, desegregation encouraged interracial unions. Blacks and whites began to meet and date, especially on college campuses, which started admitting African-Americans in larger numbers in the '60s and '70s. The next generation saw a surge in intermarriage. In 1963, 0.7 percent of blacks married someone of another race. By 1994, the figure had reached 12.1 percent. The 1960 census recorded 51,000 black-white marriages. Today there are more than 300,000. Attitudes changed too. In 1958, 4 percent of white Americans approved of interracial marriages. In 1994, it was 45 percent. And younger generations are vastly more tolerant than their elders, suggesting these numbers will climb.

Of course, it's hard not to also see the glass as half—or, more precisely, 55 percent—empty. All these numbers may be climbing, but they remain low. What's more, the white-black marriage rate lags significantly behind rates of white intermarriage with other, nonblack races. Among 25-to-34-year-olds, 52 percent of Native Americans and 40 percent of Asians married outside their race, while only 6 percent of blacks did so. The racism that kept Alabama's constitution unchanged has hardly been eradicated. Whether these habits will change on their own, with the maturation of a more tolerant generation, or whether full social acceptance of black Americans will require a concerted governmental effort, is unknowable. In the meantime, we can take only meager pride in achieving a society in which interracial marriage is safe, legal, and, alas, rare.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.