The Real American Love Story: Why America is a lot less white than it looks

The Real American Love Story: Why America is a lot less white than it looks


Brent Staples

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.

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…

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