Growth in interracial marriage rates is viewed as a barometer of social distance. Several scholars argue that the proliferation of such relationships is a testimony to the erosion of political, economic, and social barriers between races (Alba, 2009; Fu & Heaton, 2008; Lee & Bean, 2010; Rosenfeld, 2008; Fu, 2007; Qian & Lichter, 2007). While this line of reasoning is logical, it is important to question the wisdom of these claims. Although it is true that interracial marriage rates have increased exponentially since the 1970s, the same can be said of rates of poverty and incarceration. Hence, interracial marriage can be framed as an indicator of social distance only if structural violence is disavowed. This post briefly reviews sociological work on interracial marriage to disabuse scholars of their naive optimism regarding these relationships.
History of Interracial Marriage
Assimilation and intermarriage have a long history in America. At least two examples of this phenomena are readily apparent. First, Native Americans and Mexicans intermarried with whites in the early to mid-1800s. In an attempt to keep riches within its borders and encourage the permanent settlement of whites, the Mexican government developed a naturalization program incentivizing intermarriage with Mexican women (Moran, 2004). Moreover, white settlers saw it in their political and economic interests to develop cordial alliances with indigenous micro-nations; occasionally utilizing intermarriage to accomplish this goal (Sandefur & Trudy, 1986). For these oppressed groups, intermarriage was used to bring a degree of safety and path to American citizenship (Moran, 2004).
Second, the wave of European immigrants around the turn of the 20th century assimilated and intermarried into the dominant group. Stephen Steinberg (1981) argues that these migrants came to American shores with a vast array of linguistic, cultural, and economic differences. Migrants from Southern and Eastern Europe suffered episodes of discrimination. These groups were stigmatized by their ethnic identities (i.e. Irish, Italian, Jewish, etc.). However, “after a generation or two, ethnic boundaries weakened, interethnic marriage became commonplace as group differences in education and labor market opportunities narrowed, and language and residential barriers were reduced or eliminated” (Qian & Lichter, 2007: 1067). European ethnics were not only incorporated into mainstream society, but into the fold of whiteness.
The institution of marriage in America is grounded in over three centuries of anti-miscegenation legislature. As early as the colonial era, many states passed laws banning intermarriage between whites, Native Americans and blacks. While some states with anti-miscegenation laws banned Native-white marriage, all states with anti-miscegenation laws banned black-white marriage (Epstein & Walker, 2010). Hence, blacks were the targets of prohibition. As whites expanded westward and recruited labor from Asia, anti-miscegenation laws were passed barring Asian-white marriages (Shohoni, 2007). Anti-miscegenation statutes were enforced in 16 states until being abolished by the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Loving v Virginia (1967).
Discourse on Intermarriage Tends to Ignore Ontology
Before launching into a direct critique, it is important to (re)set the stage regarding the origins and structure of racial relations. Seven centuries of enslavement by Arab Muslims linked dark-skinned Africans with inferiority. By the dawn of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in 1441, Western Europe was already familiar with the systematic enslavement of Africans. It is notable that prior to the 15th century, a solidified ‘human’ identity was non-existent. The human, as an ontological category, crystallized in Western Europe around commonalities of Christianity, centralized government, and individual rights – a certain “oneness” (Sweet, 2003: 4). These characteristics became the foundation of a white identity when coming into contact with non-Europeans; especially blacks. When the human was solidified in the late 14th century, the debasement of blacks prohibited such membership. As ontological positions, humanity and blackness are opposites (Wilderson, 2008). To borrow from Marx & Engels (1973 ), the racial antagonisms between these two positions are irreconcilable. Put simply, the being of the human is constituted by anti-blackness; and the being of blackness is constituted by that which is not recognized as human.
The argument that interracial marriage is an indicator of social distance is made possible only ignoring the ontological fault lines undergirding the racial system. Scholars assume a common denominator of humanity to measure so-called social distances. In doing so, the authors erase racial antagonisms. This move is inappropriate because none of the researchers have bothered to engage the question: when and how did blacks become a part of the human family? These scholars engage interracial marriage contracts without tending to the Western world’s anti-black racial contract (Mills, 1999).
Marriage Is Not a Race-Neutral Institution
The reviewed literature overburdens interracial marriage with meaning and transformative power. An assumption of the aforementioned arguments is that marriage can alleviate the ills of systemic racism (Qian & Lichter, 2007). Such an intellectual endeavor gains coherence by theorizing marriage itself as a race-neutral institution. Lost in the midst of this naive optimism is the power imbalances and racial underpinnings of institutional marriage. Both Marxists and radical feminists are clear that marriage is a tool of social control regulating property, sexuality, and family formation (Dworkin, 1987; Engels, 1978 ). Moreover, marriage has been an instrument of anti-black racism and colonialism for centuries (Spade & Wilse, 2013). For example, slave relations were not acknowledged by the state prior to Emancipation. But in the wake of Emancipation, marriages amongst blacks were promoted to surveillance the sexuality and family structures of ex-slaves (Nopper, 2012). Similarly, Native Americans were demonized for their communal ways of life; and needed ‘civilization’ via conformance to white models of kinship (Spade & Wilse, 2013). It is important to remember that marriage licenses are registered with and recognized by a white supremacist and anti-black State. Therefore, interracial marriage is not apart from white supremacy and anti-blackness, but a part of them.
The Interest-Convergence of Loving v Virginia
The reviewed scholars also fail to interrogate the legal foundations and implications of Loving v Virginia. While blacks have been subordinated for centuries in America, the group has still received legal protections from discrimination. To explain this apparent contradiction, critical race theorist Derrick Bell espouses the notion of interest-convergence. He says “[t]he interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when that interest converges with the interest of whites in policy-making decisions. This convergence is far more important for gaining relief than the degree of harm suffered by blacks or the proof offered to prove that harm” (Bell, 2004: 69). Law is controlled by whites and is inherently self-referential. The positive impact for blacks is not the intention of the law; blacks are simply “fortuitous beneficiaries” (p. 70). Bell makes the argument that Brown v Board of Education (1954) is a prime example of interest-convergence. The desegregation decision was a Cold War effort to portray the United States in a positive light before Communist-leaning Third World countries (Bell, 2004). In Loving, the appellants argued that Brown should control the Court’s logic (Epstein & Walker, 2010).
Four facts are important with regard to the relationship between Brown and Loving: 1). these cases address a similar issue, 2). they were decided just 13 years apart, 3). the Cold War was in effect during both cases, and 4). the Civil Rights Movement was at its apex when Loving was decided. Although Bell does not cast Loving as an example of interest-convergence, it is reasonable to conclude that it fits the description. Loving had more to do with the recuperation of whiteness than the incorporation of blackness. Any claim of a relationship in this legal framework, then, must be problematized.
Intermarriage Does Not Equalize Distributions of Power
Qian & Lichter (2007) declare “marriages between people of different racial/ethnic backgrounds mean that barriers to social interaction and intimacy have broken down and that marital partners—by definition—accept each other as social equals” (emphasis added, p. 68). At work in this passage is a sanitized view of interracial marriage that casts involved partners as transcending distortions of power altogether. Interracial couples are depicted as trailblazers possessing the courage to suspend age-old racial taboos. Interracial marriage ‘breaks down barriers to social interaction and intimacy’ in a revolution of love. The impulse of this argument is aligned with colorblind racism insofar as racial inequality is ignored. Like the claim that ‘I have one black friend’ (Bonilla-Silva, 2014), interracial marriage can provide a defense against charges of racism with ‘I am married to a [insert non-white race/sex here]’.Relatedly, the authors fail to interrogate the existence of exoticism within the realms of interracial marriages. The Pew Research Center (2015) states:
“As America becomes more racially diverse and social taboos against interracial marriage fade . . . majorities of multiracial adults are proud of their mixed-race background and feel their racial heritage has made them more open to other cultures (emphasis added, p. 1).”
The researchers speak of ‘other cultures’ as if they are rare food at a buffet. Exoticism is not limited to the single-raced; multiracial individuals can exoticize and be exoticized within marriage. It is important to consider the ways myths of hyper-sexuality and bestiality are still attached to racial groups (Fanon, 1967 ).
By way of conclusion, discussions of interracial marriage falsely assume that there is a relationship at the ontological level (Sexton, 2008). Before focusing on the interracial marriage contract, we must tend to the anti-black racial contract.
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