A recent news story from Kentucky about the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church voting to ban Stella Harville and her fiancé, Ticha Chikuni, simply because she is white and he is a black African attracted a lot of media and blogger attention outside of the state.

Though many people reading and commenting were surprised that this could be happening 44 years after Loving vs Virginia, I was not. Granted we have come a long way in recent years toward changing attitudes about relationships that cross certain borders, but we still have a long way to go before we as a society are divested of racial and ethnic animosity built into the foundational bedrock of our society.

I don’t like the term “inter-racial” though almost all the data I am going to reference uses that term. To use it further re-enforces the socially constructed category of “race.” I prefer to call it cultural exogamy, or “out marriage.” Every culture known to humankind has developed rules, laws and traditions governing and controlling marriage, dating and sexual relations either restricted to an in-group (endogamy) or going outside the group. They can be rooted in religious, tribal, ethnic, caste or class strictures. Here in the United States, the focus has been primarily on “race,” and much of that emphasis has been simply on “black-white” pairings. This is not surprising given the history of racial animus we are heirs to and still suffer under. But to limit the discussion only to that one stream of history obscures the issues.

Inextricably linked to marriage and sex across boundaries was (and still is) the classification of any progeny from these unions. Who got to be “white” and how that was determined was key. Laws developed to deal with “miscegenation” also worked in tandem with determinants of “race,” which here in the U.S. was governed by variants of hypodescent (the one-drop rule), which assigned children of mixed unions to the group with lower status.

One of the first groups targeted to block intermarriage, with along with blacks, was Native Americans. Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, North Carolina and Tennessee all had laws forbidding these relationships. Other states like Georgia and Virginia simply forbade marriage to any “non-whites.”

Theatrical poster for The Squaw Man (1905)

Some states like New York did not have these laws, since early Dutch and Huguenot settlers acquired land through shrewd pairings with women of local tribes (as long as the became “Christianized”).

Children of Native white pairings were often stigmatized with pejoratives like “breeds,” and white men with native spouses or concubines were labelled “squaw men.” The Broadway stage and Hollywood did numerous iterations on the theme of white male privilege to take native women (though often abandoning them for their white female true loves by the end of the film)

Less often explored by scholars and historians were the relationships between white women and Native men, though contemporary feminist scholars are uncovering those histories.

Margaret D. Jacobs explores the early history of relationships between Native American men and white women:

In the history of the mainland United States, forty-two states, colonies, or territories passed laws against marriage between people categorized as belonging to different races. Most legislatures focused on relationships between whites and “Negroes” or “mulattos,” but three colonies and fourteen states prohibited marriages between whites and Indians. Louisiana and North Carolina also banned marriages between Indians and “Negroes.” Twelve states or territories forbid marriages between “Orientals” and whites. Yet if laws against interracial marriage were not as common for Indian-white couples as for black-white couples, social taboos could be as powerful as legislative acts in shaping the lives of white women and their Indian husbands or lovers.In the colonial era in American history there was widespread opposition to marriage between white women and Native American men. In fact, it was assumed that, as Brian Dippie explains, “The white woman would ordinarily be the unwilling victim in a union consummated through force—that is, as the captive ravished by her Indian captor, her body defiled, her spirit still pure.”

In Virgina, laws restricting marriage to Indians, or defining people of native ancestry as “colored” created problems for those descendants of the founders who were proud of an ancestral link to Pocahontas, so The Racial Integrity Act, passed in 1924, was amended in Virginia to include what was called “the Pocahontas exception.”

The Pocahontas Exception: American Indians and Exceptionalism in Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924

In 1924, Atha Sorrels and Robert Painter applied for a marriage license in the state of Virginia and were denied. The Rockbridge clerk refused to issue the license for an “interracial” marriage: as a white man, state law prohibited Painter’s legal marriage to Sorrels, a member of the Irish Creek group whose grandmother has been listed as “colored.” Under the newly enacted Racial Integrity Act, it was unlawful for any white
person “to marry any save a white person.” Creators of this statute aimed to “suppress
the shameful intermixture of the races which [had] been going on practically unchecked.” Virginia residents were required to register their race with the state Bureau of Vital Statistics, and those who reported falsely faced up to one year of imprisonment.

Under anti-misegenation laws, marriage to Asians and Filipinos were also restricted.

A sizable number of the early indentured servants in the British American colonies were brought over from the Indian subcontinent by the British East India Company. Anti-miscegenation laws discouraging interracial marriage between white Americans and non-whites affected South Asian immigrants as early as the 17th century. For example, a Eurasian daughter born to an Indian father and Irish mother in Maryland in 1680 was classified as a “mulatto” and sold into slavery. Anti-miscegenation laws there continued into the early 20th century. For example, the Bengali revolutionary Tarak Nath Das’s white American wife, Mary K. Das, was stripped of her American citizenship for her marriage to an “alien ineligible for citizenship.” In 1918, there was considerable controversy in Arizona when an Indian farmer B. K. Singh married the sixteen year-old daughter of one of his white tenants.

Arizona, California, Maryland, Nevada, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming laws specifically targeted intermarriage with Filipinos.

From 1906 to 1925, more than 150,000 Filipinos were brought to Hawaii and the US mainland to work in the agricultural fields. The gender ratio was 14 males to 1 female with many of the Filipinas coming as spouses making the ratio of single Filipinos to single Filipinas even greater. The absence of eligible Pinays caused Pinoys to date eligible women of other races. When they dated white women, all hell broke loose. In 1930, 400 white men in Watsonville, California attacked a Filipino dance hall where Filipino men were dancing with white women, causing many Filipinos to be savagely beaten and one shot to death. Laws banning intermarriages of whites to blacks, mulattos and Mongolians, called Anti-Miscegenation laws, were enacted in California since 1850. By the 1920s, it was not clear whether Filipinos were included in this ban. When a Filipino applied for a marriage license to marry his white fiancée in Los Angeles in 1925, the clerk refused to issue one claiming that Filipinos were included in the ban. This interpretation was challenged but a judge upheld the clerk’s position by finding that “the Filipino is a Malay and the Malay is a Mongolian. Hence, it is my view that under the code of California as it now exists, intermarriage between a Filipino and a Caucasian would be void.” […]In 1948, the California Supreme Court, in the case of Perez v, Sharp, in a 4-3 split decision, declared California’s anti-miscegenation law unconstitutional and in violation of the equal protection clause of the US Constitution. In his majority decision, California Chief Justice Roger Traynor rejected the state’s arguments that “the prohibition of intermarriage between Caucasians and members of the specified races prevents the Caucasian race from being contaminated by races whose members are by nature physically and mentally inferior to Caucasians”; that statistics proved the “physical inferiority of certain races” and that “Negroes, and impliedly the other races specified in section 60, are inferior mentally to Caucasians.”

The term “miscegenation,” which social scientists today label as pejorative, was invented around the time of the Civil War, and was used as a pseudo-scientific tool to rally and inflame anti-abolitionists.

The word was coined in an anonymous propaganda pamphlet published in New York City in December 1863, during the American Civil War. The pamphlet was entitled Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro. It purported to advocate the intermarriage of whites and blacks until they were indistinguishably mixed, as a desirable goal, and further asserted that this was the goal of the Republican Party. The pamphlet was a hoax, concocted by Democrats, to discredit the Republicans by imputing to them what were then radical views that offended against the attitudes of the vast majority of whites, including those who opposed slavery. There was already much opposition to the war effort; in New York in particular the opposition reached heights of the Draft Riots, that included numerous lynchings.The pamphlet and variations on it were reprinted widely in both the north and south by Democrats and Confederates. Only in November 1864 was the pamphlet exposed as a hoax. The hoax pamphlet was written by David Goodman Croly, managing editor of the New York World, a Democratic Party paper, and George Wakeman, a World reporter.

Political caricature. No. 4, The miscegenation ball (Library of Congress)

Text from the political cartoon:

Although slightly different in format, this appears to be the fourth in the Bromley series of anti-Republican satires. As in no. 2 of the series, “Miscegenation or the Millenium of Abolitionism” (no. 1864-39), the artist plays on Northern fears of racial intermingling. Here, white men are dancing and flirting with black women in a large hall. Above the musicians’ stage hangs a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. At right hangs a banner “Universal Freedom, One Constitution, One Destiny.

In his book Presidential Campaigns, Paul F. Boller Jr. describes the Rovian tactics used to spark racist resistance to abolition:

Late in 1863, an anonymous seventy — five-page pamphlet with a strange title appeared in New York City: Miscegenation: The The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro. The word “miscegenation,” meaning race-mixing, was new, but it caught on quickly. The other new word appearing in the pamphlet, “metateukation,” meaning union of white and black, didn’t catch on, but that was what the pamphlet was really all about. The pamphlet heartily endorsed both miscegenation and melaleukation. Race-mixing, it declared, invigorated nations. American vitality came, “not from its Anglo-Saxon progenitors, but from all the different nationalities” mingling in the population. But melaleukation, said the pamphlet, would carry the American people to an even higher level of performance. “All that is needed to make us the finest race on earth is to engraft on our stock the negro element.” The Republican party was the “party of miscegenation,” Lincoln and the abolitionists favored it, and the war to preserve the Union was essentially “a war looking, as its final fruit, to the blending of white and black.” The pamphlet contained a long section calling on the New York Irish to overcome their hostility to blacks and intermarry with them as Lincoln wished.The miscegenation tract created a sensation. It soon appeared in other parts of the country, received extended notices in the daily, weekly, and monthly press, and ended by injecting the issue of miscegenation (formerly called amalgamation) into the campaign of 1864. In Congress, Ohio Democrat Samuel Sullivan Cox quoted from the pamphlet to prove that the Republican party was “moving steadily forward to perfect social equality of black and white” and to the “detestable doctrine of-Miscegenation!” The Democratic press gave generous space to Cox’s speech and added strictures of its own to Cox’s indictment. In editorials, cartoons, and verse, the Democrats hammered away at the issue, and at rallies people carried placards begging, “Fathers, Save Us from Negro Equality.” Advised humorist Petroleum B. Nasby ( David R. Locke): “Lern to spell and pronownce Missegenashun. It’s a good word.”

Leading abolitionists (all of whom received complimentary copies of Miscegenation) were a bit puzzled by the tract. Some of them pointed out that melaleukation had been going on for years on Southern plantations outside the bonds of holy matrimony. Others gave cautious assent to the idea of race-mingling. But most abolitionists asserted that while they didn’t go out of their way to encourage racial intermarriage, they certainly believed that whites and blacks had a perfect right to intermarry if they so chose. Republican newspapers, however, insisted the pamphlet raised a phony issue and that emancipation did not mean miscegenation.

What is ironic about this history is the fact that “African-Americans”  should have a “made in the USA” label. An overwhelming majority of “black” people here have European (white) ancestry. Up until 1930, census data listed “blacks” and “mulattos” as separate categories, and even included in some years designations like octoroon (one-eighth black) and quadroon (one-fourth black). Most of these mixes occurred as a result of rape, concubinage and cohabitation, and a few as a result of legal marriage between the two groups.

Efforts to prevent the birth of more children of mixed parentage included both legal punishment for white women who gave birth to a children by black men, and psudeo medical science to target mulattos as weak and dangerous hybrids.

Mulatto boy (Library of Congress)

In the Boston medical and surgical journal, Volume 29, published by the Massachusetts Medical Society, New England Surgical Society, Josiah Clark Nott wrote a widely circulated (and accepted) piece of sheer quackery:

The mulatto: a hybrid : probable extermination of the two races if the Whites and Blacks are allowed to intermarry, in which he stated his medical theories equating mulattoes to crosses between horses and donkeys and concluding:

1st. That the mulattoes are intermediate in intelligence between the whites and blacks.2d. That they are less capable of endurance and are shorter lived than the whites or blacks.

3d. That the mulatto women are particularly delicate—are subject to many chronic diseases, and especially derangement of the catamenia, prolapsus uteri, leucorrhoea, and other diseases peculiar to females.

4th. That the women are bad breeders and bad nurses—many of them do not conceive at all—most are subject to abortions, and a large portion of their children die at an early age.

5th. That the two sexes when they intermarry are less prolific, than when crossed on one of the parent stocks. […]

As many of these hybrids are governed by different laws, is it not reasonable that the human hybrid may also have its peculiar laws—may not one of these laws be (which might be inferred from the foregoing data) that the Mulatto or Hybrid is a degenerate, unnatural offspring, doomed by nature to work out its own destruction?

Regardless of theories like this black children continued to be born with light brown, tan and beige complexions—clearly indicating mixed ancestry.


The same way President Obama’s parentage is used to fuel right wing racist attacks today, the relationship between a VP candidate and his mixed heritage partner made waves in 1835:

A racist attack on Democratic vice-presidential candidate Richard M. Johnson. The Kentucky Congressman’s nomination, in May 1835, as Van Buren’s running-mate for the 1836 election raised eyebrows even among party faithful, because of Johnson’s common-law marriage to a mulatto woman, Julia Chinn, by whom he fathered two daughters. The artist ridicules Johnson’s domestic situation, and the Democrats’ constituency as well.

Is it any wonder, that after decades upon decades of laws and scientific treatises, combined with eugenics propaganda that some Americans still have deep-seated fears and resistance to “race-mixing”?

Back in April, Public Policy Polling reported these data:

We asked voters on this poll whether they think interracial marriage should be legal or illegal- 46% of Mississippi Republicans said it should be illegal to just 40% who think it should be legal. For the most part there aren’t any huge divides in how voters view the candidates or who they support for the nomination based on their attitudes about interracial marriage but there are a few exceptions.

But trends overall are getting better, particularly among young people.

Almost All Millennials Accept Interracial Dating and Marriage

The Pew Research Center’s recent report on racial attitudes in the U.S., finds that an overwhelming majority of Millennials, regardless of race, say they would be fine with a family member’s marriage to someone of a different racial or ethnic group. Asked about particular groups to which they do not belong, Millennials are about equally accepting of marriage to someone in any of the groups tested: Roughly nine-in-ten say they would be fine with a family member’s marriage to an African American (88%), a Hispanic American (91%), an Asian American (93%) or a white American (92%).

One-in-Seven New U.S. Marriages is Interracial or Interethnic: Marrying Out

Key findings:A record 14.6% of all new marriages in the United States in 2008 were between spouses of a different race or ethnicity from one another. This includes marriages between a Hispanic and non-Hispanic (Hispanics are an ethnic group, not a race) as well as marriages between spouses of different races — be they white, black, Asian, American Indian or those who identify as being of multiple races or “some other” race. Among all newlyweds in 2008, 9% of whites, 16% of blacks, 26% of Hispanics and 31% of Asians married someone whose race or ethnicity was different from their own.

Gender patterns in intermarriage vary widely. Some 22% of all black male newlyweds in 2008 married outside their race, compared with just 9% of black female newlyweds. Among Asians, the gender pattern runs the other way. Some 40% of Asian female newlyweds married outside their race in 2008, compared with just 20% of Asian male newlyweds. Among whites and Hispanics, by contrast, there are no gender differences in intermarriage rates.

More than a third of adults (35%) say they have a family member who is married to someone of a different race. Blacks say this at higher rates than do whites; younger adults at higher rates than older adults; and Westerners at higher rates than people living in other regions of the country.

Researchers have also been examining mixed couples in the LGBT community.

While black-and-white couples remain rare in the U.S., a new analysis of Census 2000 data indicates that same-sex cohabiting couples are much more likely to be interracial than their different-sex counterparts.The study, by UCLA School of Law’s Williams Project, reveals that 12 percent of gay couples are mixed compared with 7 percent of straight ones. This difference holds up when you control for age, education, and urban living, factors that correlate with interracial coupling and distinguish gay from straight. The bulk of these couples are Latino-white (43 percent), distantly followed by black-white (14 percent), Asian Pacific Islander-white (11 percent), and black-Latino (3 percent). This pretty much mirrors the breakdown for straight couples, except that significantly more interracial gay couples than straight are black-white (14 percent versus 9 percent).

This does not mean that the gay community does not have issues with race/ethnicity. As a friend told me last year, “It took years for my parents to accept I was gay … but they were not amused when I brought home my black partner … pressure from my family pushed me to end the relationship.”

Trevor Hope addressed this issue in Dealing with Desire:

Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about sexual desire – about what turns people on. Why is it that you prefer certain kinds of partners, and I prefer others? In conversations with gay male friends, I haven’t had to dig deep to hear comments like, “Oh, I’m just not attracted to ___ men.” Just fill in the blank. Feminine, Black, overweight – you name it, it’s been said. These statements aren’t considered problematic because “it’s just the way I am” – right? Many people – straight and gay – assume these kinds of statements to be innocent because most have an understanding of desire that’s inherent. Desire isn’t learned, they say; it’s completely natural. It’s biological.I couldn’t help but wonder if this is really entirely true. Are we hardwired from birth to be attracted to certain kinds of people and not others? Darwin may be the most significant influence on this kind of thinking. His natural selection theory would say that people are attracted to other people, based upon their genetics, for the purpose of procreation. If the genes are “good” – go for it. If not, bugger off. This theory may seem to make some sense when we’re talking about Tom and Jane and whether or not Jane has so-called “birthing hips” or Tom has hyper-active sperm. But it just so happens that most of these comments I hear aren’t about sperm or hips, but about things much more suspicious – namely, race.

I’m dubious of any argument that implicitly allows for being biologically predisposed to be attracted to white people and not people of color. This assertion is obviously false. Race is not something that existed before people did. Sociology tells us that race is a social construction. Humans have attached meaning to certain skin color configurations and thus we created race. Therefore there can be no gene or other biological influence that tells our bodies what color skin to find sexy. Any biological explanation for racial preference, then, must be false.

Though marrying-out is usually thought of in terms relating to ethno-racial categories, it can also cover religion. Pew reports:

Buddhists and the religiously unaffiliated are the most likely to have a spouse or partner with a different religious background, while Mormons and Hindus are the least likely to marry or live with a partner outside their own faith

Religious ties can often serve to mitigate ethnic tensions. My students are often from Italian-Irish families. Both parents Catholic. Other students of inter-faith parentage often report that rather than pick the faith of one parent, they opted out of being religious- period.

I am curious about how many readers have dated or married out-or are children of one of these unions.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published December 11, 2011, at Daily Kos. Top photo licensed by LikeTheDew.com from iStock.com.
Denise Oliver Velez

Denise Oliver Velez

Feminist, Activist, former Young Lords Party and Black Panther Party member, applied cultural anthropologist.  See her diaries at Daily Kos.