Mixed Blood: Intermarriage and Ethnic Identity in Twentieth-Century America [Review: Pascoe]

Mixed Blood: Intermarriage and Ethnic Identity in Twentieth-Century America [Review: Pascoe]

Journal of Social History
Volume 25, Number 1 (Autumn, 1991)
pages 174-176

Peggy Pascoe (1954-2010), Beekman Professor of Northwest and Pacific History
University of Oregon

Mixed Blood: Intermarriage and Ethnic Identity in Twentieth-Century America. By Paul R. Spickard (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. xii plus 532 pp.).

Intermarriage must surely rank as one of the most neglected topics in American social history. Only a handful of historians have attempted to study it, some of  whom focused on the enactment of laws that prohihited interracial marriages while others traced changes in the social patterns of intermarriage over time. Whichever route they chose, historians relied heavily on the statistical data and theoretical constructs put forth by social scientists. This alliance between historians and social scientists, a sort of intermarriage of its own, has been something of a love-hate relationship: dependent on social scientists for both data and theories, historians tend to use their insight into change over time to challenge the very theories they borrow.

The most recent—and surely the most ambitious—historical study of intermarriage in the United States, Paul Spickard’s Mixed Blood: Intermarriage and Ethnic Identity in Twentieth-Century America, is a case in point. Spickard focuses on intermarriage in three different ethnic groups over the entire twentieth century. The unprecedented range of his study puts him in an ideal position to criticize social science theories, which, he argues, are flawed because they concentrate too much on social structure and not enough on culture. In an attempt to redress the balance, he adds the “cultural factors” of “a group’s own perception of its relative social status, the general society’s toleration of intergroup relationships, and different ethnic groups images of each other” to the analysis (pp. 343—44). Mixing data from statistical studies with cultural images from oral history interviews, popular journals, and movies, Spickard tests the validity of a wide range of social science theories about intermarriage and ethnic identity.

Mixed Blood is organized into four separate sections, one each on Japanese Americans, Jewish Americans, and Black Americans, and an additional one on Japanese women who married American soldiers. Within each section, Spickard considers a melange of topics. The most innovative are those Spickard considers “cultural” topics, including the “images” mainstream and ethnic groups held of each other, the “hierarchy of preference” each group showed in choosing marriage partners, and (a particularly useful choice) the interethnic divisions usually invisible to dominant groups. The rest are topics far more familiar, including such old chestnuts as the “success” of intermarriages and the ethnic identity of the children. On several issues Spickards determination to explore the attitudes of ethnic groups as well as those of the dominant society pays off impressively. He demonstrates, for example, that some ethnic groups, like Japanese Americans, held their own notions of racial superiority so strongly that they were even less likely than Anglo Americans to welcome the children of intermarriages into their communities. On others, his findings are too narrow to be of much help. In trying to measure the “success” of intermarriages, for example, Spickard compares the divorce rate of intermarriages with the divorce rate of marriages within each ethnic group; curiously, he never compares them with the divorce rate in American society as a whole.

In the end, only two theories about intermarriage survive Spickard’s scrutiny: the general proposition that the extent of intermarriage has increased over the twentieth century and the assertion that the larger the ethnic community is, the lower the rate of intermarriage will be. Several others, including the theory that an unbalanced sex ratio leads to intermarriage, that intermarriages fall into a “triple melting pot” pattern, and that barriers of race are harder to breach than barriers of religion or national origin, fail to survive because they cannot account for all of the widely disparate groups Spickard has chosen for his study. Still others, including nearly every theory about gender and class in intermarriage, fail for more fundamental reasons. Theories about ethnic identity fare no better: Spickard discards the notion that children of mixed marriages invariably fit into subordinate groups, raises doubts about whether intermarriage is a reliable indicator of assimilation, and finds tremendous variation in the extent to which intcrmarriers maintain ethnic ties and ethnic identity.

Well-documentcd as they are, these results should scarcely come as a surprise, for historians have plenty of reason to be suspicious of social scientists’ transhistorical explanations for social patterns. More surprising is the extent to which Spickard’s critique of social science theories itself remains embedded in transhistorical categories. Spickard is adept at using his comparative data to disprove the theories of social scientists. Yet, like the social scientists he ultimately rejects, Spickard takes for granted that two of the fundamental axes of intermarriage—race and gender—are fixed, immutable categories, the “givens” of historical analysis. As a result, he overlooks the possibility that his data point not only to comparative variability in ethnic identity but also to significant historical reformulations of the notions of race and gender. To take one striking example: because Spickard discovered that there were more similarities between the intermarriage patterns of Japanese Americans and Jewish Americans than between those of Japanese Americans and Black Americans, he concludes that perhaps, race is not so fundamental a category of social relationships in America as has often been supposed” (p. 343). The more reasonable point, 1 suspect, is that over the time period which Spickard covers, there were significant shifts in the social construction of the idea of race, shifts that might help make interpretive sense of Spickard’s own finding that over the course of the century, Japanese Americans, once labeled by dominant Americans as “Black,” later came to be considered “White” (p. 347). Scholars interested in these questions should consult anthropologist Virginia Dominguez’s White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana, a recent social science study of intermarriage that pays unusually close attention to the social construction of race/ A similar attempt to map shifts in the social construction of gender would seem to be in order as well, for as Spickards critiques of existing theories show, gender is perhaps the least understood aspect of interracial marriage.

In the future, more attention to the social construction of race and gender may lead studies of intermarriage in a different direction. For the moment, though, one thing is certain: for its sheer ambition, for its unsurpassed range of data, for its painstaking critiques of social scientific theories, Mixed Blood is indispensable reading for historians interested in the study of intermarriage.

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