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.

To protest the California Supreme Court's recent decision to allow same-sex marriage, some counties in the state have stopped performing marriage ceremonies altogether. This isn't the first time conservatives have committed acts of civil disobedience regarding marriage. In a 1999 "History Lesson," David Greenberg explained that long after a 1967 Supreme Court ruling that struck down bans against interracial marriage, some county clerks in the South refused to issue marriage licenses to mixed-race couples. The article is reprinted below.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Last week, the Alabama Senate voted to repeal the state's constitutional prohibition against interracial marriage, 32 years after the Supreme Court struck down Virginia's similar ban. Hadn't these archaic laws gone out with Bull Connor? I asked myself as I read the news account. And haven't we been hearing that America has rediscovered the melting pot, that in another generation or two we'll all be "cablinasian," like Tiger Woods?

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I talked to the measure's main sponsor, state Rep. Alvin Holmes, a 24-year statehouse veteran who has been trying to overturn the ban for decades. "The last time I tried was about three years ago," said Holmes. "It didn't get out of committee." Holmes credits his success to the last election, in which a bevy of Democrats were swept into office.

Holmes wasn't just tidying up the legal code. In parts of rural Alabama, he said, probate judges still refuse to issue marriage licenses to interracial couples. Holmes explained that some of his Alabama colleagues opposed his measure because they willfully refused to accept that the federal government had the power to override state law—an ideology of states' rights that goes way beyond Newt Gingrich to John Calhoun.

When you think about it, it makes sense that some Alabamians found it hard to jettison overnight a 300-year-old custom. Laws against interracial marriage—and the taboos against black-white sex that they codify—have been the central weapon in the oppression of African-Americans since the dawn of slavery. President Abraham Lincoln's detractors charged him in the 1864 presidential campaign with promoting the mongrelization of the races (that's where the coinage miscegenation, which now sounds racist, comes from). Enemies of the 20th-century civil rights movement predicted that the repeal of Jim Crow laws would, as one Alabama state senator put it, "open the bedroom doors of our white women to black men." Fears of black sexuality have been responsible for some of the most notorious incidents of anti-black violence and persecution, from the Scottsboro Boys to Emmett Till.

Intermarriage bans arose in the late 1600s, when tobacco planters in Virginia needed to shore up their new institution of slavery. In previous decades, before slavery took hold, interracial sex was more prevalent than at any other time in American history. White and black laborers lived and worked side by side and naturally became intimate. Even interracial marriage, though uncommon, was allowed. But as race slavery replaced servitude as the South's labor force, interracial sex threatened to blur the distinctions between white and black—and thus between free and slave. Virginia began categorizing a child as free or slave according to the mother's status (which was easier to determine than the father's), and so in 1691 the assembly passed a law to make sure that women didn't bear mixed-race children. The law banned "negroes, mulatto's and Indians intermarrying with English, or other white women, [and] their unlawfull accompanying with one another." Since the society was heavily male, the prohibition on unions between white women and nonwhite men also lessened the white men's competition for mates. (In contrast, sex between male slave owners and their female slaves—which often meant rape—was common. It typically met with light punishment, if any at all.)

If fears of interracial sex underlay bans on interracial marriage, it was marriage that became the greater threat. Men might rape black women or keep them as concubines, but to marry them would confer legal equality. Thus, over the course of the 18th century, all Southern states—and many Northern ones—outlawed all marriages between blacks and whites. Up through the Civil War, only two states, Pennsylvania in 1780 and Massachusetts in 1843—hotbeds of abolitionist activity—repealed their bans.

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.

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 of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, worked at the New Republic in the early 1990s as an intern, as managing editor, and as acting editor.

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