The Race Against Race [Book review of “What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America”]

The Race Against Race [Book review of “What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America”]

The New Republic

Richard Posner

What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America” by Peggy Pascoe
“Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell” by Paul A. Lombardo

Peggy Pascoe, a historian, has written what might seem to be an uncannily timely history of laws against miscegenation—interracial marriage or procreation—in the United States. In 2008, after all, the nation elected its first president who had parents of different races. A nice coincidence for Pascoe, but not much more. Presidential candidates with an unusual background are elected only when their background has ceased to be problematic: the first Catholic when people stopped worrying that a Catholic president would be the Pope’s puppet; the first divorced person when divorce had become too common to be stigmatized; and now the first person of mixed race, when “miscegenation” has ceased to have any public significance and indeed has vanished from most people’s vocabulary. Black-white marriages remain rare, and many parents of whites do not want their children to marry blacks, and vice versa—but such aversions raise only personal issues, not social or political ones. So Pascoe’s book will tell us nothing about Obama’s presidency, but it is a good book that recounts a fascinating history and bears at least obliquely on one contemporary political issue—that of gay marriage.

Laws against mixed marriage have been surprisingly rare outside the United States. Nazi Germany forbade marriage between a German and any member of a non-Aryan “race,” thus including Jews, along with blacks, Slavs, and members of a host of other racial and nonracial groups. And South Africa in the apartheid era forbade interracial marriage. Because the regulation of marriage was considered a state rather than a federal prerogative, there was never a nationwide ban on mixed marriage in the United States.

The American laws forbidding black-white marriage date to colonial times. They were found in northern as well as southern colonies and states. But they had little significance in the North because there were not many blacks, as there were in the South, where the laws reflected and ratified the inferior status of blacks. Not all Southern blacks were slaves, but not even free blacks had the rights of citizens. Oddly, in light of the later eugenic concern with interracial procreation, the taboo against interracial marriage coexisted with a high rate of procreative sexual intercourse between white men and black women (condoned by the authorities despite laws against non-marital sex), combined with a fierce determination to prevent sex between black men and white women. This odd pattern made a certain economic sense. It increased the range of sexual opportunities for white men, and since the child of a black slave woman was a slave, the children of such relationships were not an economic burden. White men retained a monopoly of white women, while black men had to share black women with white men. White men dominated government, so it is not surprising that the laws were formulated and enforced in such a way as to maximize their sexual freedom, although they could not marry black women…

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