New York Times (Op-Ed)
By Sheryll Cashin
June 03, 2017
As a descendant of slaves and slaveholders, I embody uncomfortable incongruities — just as America does. In “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Thomas Jefferson wrote with anguish about the risks of amalgamation, or interracial sex, to a new nation. Whites were “stained” when they mixed with blacks, whom he speculated were inferior in mind and form.
There was a Strom Thurmond-esque artificiality to this cry for racial purity. Southern patriarchs made an art out of objecting to what was happening under their own noses — or pelvises. As history would prove, human urges, whether violent or amorous, inevitably muddy lines, and master-slave rape and coupling produced many mixed people.
Today, the “ardent integrators” who pursue interracial relationships are motivated by love and are our greatest hope for racial understanding. Although America is in a state of toxic polarity, I am optimistic. Through intimacy across racial lines, a growing class of whites has come to value and empathize with African-Americans and other minorities. They are not dismantling white supremacy so much as chipping away at it.
Fifty years ago next week, on June 12, 1967, Mildred and Richard Loving won their landmark Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, ending state bans on interracial marriage. Mildred was a homemaker of indigenous and black heritage, cast as a Negro by Jim Crow. Richard was a white brick mason who drag-raced cars with similarly mixed-race friends. They lived in Central Point, a rural hamlet with a history of racial mixing that began in the colonial era, and they were considered felons under Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924.
Such miscegenation bans were a relic of slavery. When wealthy planters transitioned from largely white indentured servitude to black chattel slavery in the second half of the 17th century, they feared that poor whites who labored alongside slaves and sometimes took them as lovers would rebel with them or help them escape.
Miscegenation laws in as many as 41 states helped to keep these dangerous whites from subverting slavery, and later Jim Crow. As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the unanimous Loving opinion, such laws were an instrument of “White Supremacy” — the first time the Supreme Court used those words to name what the Civil War and the 14th Amendment should have defeated.
Today the race mixing that supremacists feared is growing apace, and interracial dating, marriage, adoption and friendship are occurring at rates that were unfathomable 50 years ago.
As of the 2010 census, the most reliable recent source, around 24 percent of adopted children in the United States were placed with a parent of a race different from their own, up from 17 percent in 2000. Christian groups in red states are part of this trend.
About 17 percent of new marriages and 20 percent of cohabiting relationships are interracial or interethnic. About one-quarter of Americans have a close relative in an interracial marriage. In the most recent Pew Research Center survey, 91 percent of respondents said that interracial marriage was a change for the better or made no difference at all.
Whites and blacks are still less likely to intermarry — they make up about 11 percent of newlywed heterosexual couples — but acceptance is growing. For whites in particular, intimate contact reduces prejudice. Whites with reduced prejudice, in turn, have a worldview similar to that of many minorities; that is, they support policies designed to reduce racial inequality.
Those who think of white people in monolithic terms miss this nuance. A small study of whites married to blacks documented increased understanding of racism. And those married to nonblack minorities were likely to experience a shift in their thinking about immigration.
This transition from blindness to sight, from anxiety to familiarity, is a process of acquiring “cultural dexterity.” Love can make people do uncomfortable things, like meeting a black lover’s family and being the only white person in the room. Culturally dexterous people have an enhanced capacity for intimate connections with people outside their own tribe, for recognizing and accepting difference rather than pretending to be colorblind. And if one undertakes the effort, the process is never-ending.
One need not marry or adopt a person of another race to experience transformational love. Close friendships across group boundaries have been shown to reduce prejudice, ease anxiety and enhance willingness to engage in the future.
Ardent integrators also transfer benefits to the less dexterous people in their tribe. Attitudes can be improved merely by knowing that someone has a close friend from another group.
Social psychologists have even documented that people can develop virtual ties with a fictional character or, say, a black president, in ways that reduce prejudice. As the media represents more diverse racial experiences with shows like “Black-ish,” it will further humanize others.
After Loving was decided, politicians dog-whistled for five decades. Divide-and-conquer tactics like union-busting and gerrymandering destroyed the possibility of class unity among struggling people. In its absence, culturally dexterous people may be our only hope for disrupting hoary race scripts. I believe that growing interracial intimacy, combined with immigration and demographic and generational change, will contribute to the rise of this group.
Eventually, a critical mass of white people will accept the loss of the centrality of whiteness. When enough whites can accept being one voice among many in a robust democracy, politics in America could finally become functional.
This transformation occurred in California as it evolved from majority-white to gridlocked to majority-minority to functional over a 20-year-period.
In 1994, the Republican governor, Pete Wilson, behind in the polls, blamed undocumented immigrants for California’s troubles. He was re-elected by a landslide. Around the same time, the state passed its three-strikes law for felony offenders and tried to bar “illegal aliens” from public schools.
But California changed because the people who constituted a political majority changed.
By 2011, one in four newly married couples there was interracial. As a result, a plurality or perhaps even a majority of people knew someone who was married to a person of a different race. Many Californians also engaged in interracial cohabitation or adoption, and black-white residential integration increased significantly. Increased proximity most likely expanded white people’s knowledge of what nonwhite people face. And older whites, who tended to have less dexterous worldviews, went to see their maker.
Another change was the increase in Hispanic, Asian-American and other minority populations. They were not only gaining in numbers but also engaged more in politics, eventually helping approve ballot initiatives that placed redistricting in the hands of a bipartisan commission and that reformed the primary voting system to encourage moderation.
Though it is far from perfect, California is now retreating from the War on Drugs, investing in education and offering an example of what functioning, multiracial politics looks like.
A similar story could be told about America in a decade or two. Donald Trump has accelerated political engagement by Latinos, Muslim Americans and other groups offended by his scapegoating, and he has also accelerated the ability of many whites to see and name racism. Activists for #BlackLives, for example, have more allies than they might imagine; about 60 percent of whites under 30 agree with the group’s critique of law enforcement.
More loving and more activism could lead to the dismantling of stubborn structures born of supremacist thinking. We could begin by imagining what the culturally dexterous class should create in their place — that is, what the third Reconstruction might look like.
Sheryll Cashin, a law professor at Georgetown, is the author of the forthcoming “Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy,” from which this essay was adapted.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on June 4, 2017, on Page SR3 of the New York edition with the headline: Interracial Love Is Saving America.
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