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A Brief History of Interracial Marriage and Race Classification in America

The upcoming PBS series, AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY, reflects how far
Americans have come in pursuit of freedom and identity - and how far we still have to go

In America today, there are millions of people whose families, homes and personal backgrounds embrace more than one race, religion or culture. But rarely has the reality - and naturalness - of their everyday lives and family loyalties been explored on television. Until now. When AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY, AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE's new 10-hour documentary series about an interracial family in Queens, New York, debuts Sunday, September 12, 1999 through Thursday, September 16 from 9 to 11 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), the lives and loves of millions of families of multiple identities will be symbolically represented. And while the four members of the Wilson-Sims family don't claim to speak for anyone but themselves, the very fact that their family's story exists and is now being told in a major TV documentary is literally a triumph over hundreds of years of anti-interracial American history.

The High Court's Ruling in the "Summer of Love"

The general media invisibility of interracial couples and their children is directly linked to the historic social taboo, as well as illegality, of mixed marriage in America. It was not until June 12, 1967 - just as the famous hippie "Summer of Love" was beginning - that the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to miscegenation laws, calling them unconstitutional. Until then, more than 40 states had at one time outlawed legal unions between blacks and whites, and by the time of the High Court's decision, more than 15 still did.

Although there were a miniscule number of recorded interracial marriages prior to the Civil War, they were, not surprisingly, extremely rare. And while there were some voluntary pre-War love matches between persons of different races - not the least of which is the only-recently-acknowledged long-term affair between President Thomas Jefferson and a slave, Sally Hemmings - the majority of interracial encounters were comprised of the rape of black women by white men, both slave masters and others. Indeed, part of the longstanding objection to interracial marriage by some African-Americans is a visceral response to this history of violation.

In the years after the Civil War, it was an eagerness to "preserve the integrity of the white race" by preventing the birth of mixed-race children that in great part motivated states to pass miscegenation laws. Some states, like California, chose to specifically prohibit "intermarriage of white persons with Chinese, Negroes, mulattos, or persons of mixed blood descended from a Chinaman or Negro from the third generation inclusive." In 1869, a Georgia judge blocked the marriage of a white Frenchman and a black woman by saying, "The amalgamation of the races is not only unnatural but is always productive of deplorable results. Our daily observations show us that the offspring of these unnatural connections are generally sick and effeminate." And a Missouri judge in 1883 prevented an intermarriage, because, "It is stated as a well authenticated fact that if the [children] of a black man and white woman, and a white man and a black woman intermarry, they cannot possibly have any progeny, and such a fact sufficiently justifies those laws which forbid the intermarriage of blacks and whites."

In contrast to the ignorance that muddied such racist rulings, the clearer prejudice of Virginia's Judge Leon Bazile in the famous 1959 Loving case (in which a black man and white woman were sentenced to prison for trying to circumvent Virginia law by marrying in Washington DC) is almost refreshing. "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Maylay and red, and he placed them on separate continents," he said. "And but for the interference with His arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriages." The 1967 federal law superceded state statutes, but it took decades for all states to officially remove these laws from their books; Alabama did so just this year.

The Measure of the "One Drop Rule"

The first Gallup poll conducted on the issue of interracial marriage was in 1958 and showed that 94% of whites opposed such unions - and while disapproval has lessened in recent decades, it's hardly been a 180-degree shift. But mainstream America has been more consistent about how it chooses to view the multi-racial children produced by these marriages. When it comes to people who are part white and part Asian, Hispanic, Native American, or anything else except African-American, there seem to be no hard and fast rules and society often seems content to "tolerantly" view such persons as "exotic." But when it comes to the progeny of whites and blacks, the decision is clear: only white is white. Black is everything else.

This distinction is rooted in the infamous "one drop rule," which holds that if you have "one drop" of African-American blood in your heritage, you are black. This standard was devised by slave owners in order to swell their slave ranks, as well as to avoid legal challenges to family entitlements by mixed-race offspring, such as surnames and inheritance. The "one drop rule" went from convention to law when it was endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court as a result of its landmark 1896 Plessey vs. Ferguson ruling, in which Homer Plessey, who had one black great grandparent, was denied the right to ride in a railroad car reserved for whites, so long as there were "separate but equal" accommodations. However, definitions of what constituted a "drop" could vary from state to state. At one time in Florida, a person was "legally white" if he or she had no more than one non-white great, great grandparent. But that same person was deemed black in neighboring Georgia. And in Arizona, persons of mixed race of any kind were prohibited from marrying anyone, even each other.

This insistence on making race a matter of legal formula, rather than personal identity based on one's cultural and family experience, has been a source of pain, shame and confusion for mixed-race people for generations. And it's not only whites who have created the turmoil. In the black community, antipathy still exists between African-Americans of lighter and darker complexion. This rivalry also dates back to slave days, when lighter-skinned slaves (frequently mixed-race persons) were often "rewarded" with assignments to house duties rather than fieldwork, and sometimes given special privileges. In the years after the War, a color caste system developed among blacks that mimicked the values of the white power structure: darker blacks were viewed as inferior to those who were lighter. A paradoxical parallel to the "one drop rule" emerged, known as the "paper bag" rule, namely, if you are darker than the shade of brown of a paper bag, you are deemed "too" dark. This phenomenon, which still exists in some quarters, is virtually never discussed by blacks with whites - and explains why, for example, Spike Lee's breakthrough film, School Daze, a satire of color distinctions on a black college campus, was a commercial flop; it made little sense to white audiences and greatly discomfited black viewers.

The fact that nearly all African-Americans can claim white or Indian blood somewhere in their background, and that about 15% of white Americans would completely fail a one drop test, has done nothing to smooth the path of identity for multi-racial Americans, many of whom reject blood drops, paper bags and other divisive devices in their search for a broader sense of self. Traditionally, interracial couples raise their children to view themselves as black, knowing that this is the default identity assigned in a society that will regard them as black, whether they see themselves as such or not. And ironically, some African-Americans have in essence reclaimed the "one drop rule" as their own, in an effort to foster black pride and hold onto as many persons in their demographic coffers as possible.

It is for these last reasons that the decision by the U.S. Census Bureau to respond favorably to years of formal and informal requests by mixed-race persons for a racial category that expresses their diverse origins is being less than welcomed by some black critics. They charge that a "multi-racial" distinction is similar to the South African apartheid divisions of black, white and colored, and therefore encourages increased racial separation and prejudice, rather than promoting unity and acceptance.

But for many of the millions of multi-racial Americans and interracial couples who are weary of conventions and categories defining their lives, this step by the Census Bureau seems like one in the right direction. And, like the premiere of AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY, the first-ever major television series to mirror their lives and family experience, it may feel like a turning point in history.

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Media Relations:

Fisher Company
914-674-6164 phone
914-674-6145 fax e-mail

Station Relations:

Bunny Tavares/ITVS
413 628-4067 phone
413 628-4656 fax e-mail

July 1999

Additional Press Materials:





by Karen Wilson and Bill Sims

by Cicily Wilson and Chaney Sims

A Brief History of Interracial Marriage and Race Classification in America


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