Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Rollover text informationAmerican Experience Logo
The Murder of Emmett Till
The Film and More
Special Features
Online Forum
Do You Remember?
Teens and Segregation
In Till's Shadow
Till's Legacy
Sex and Race
Killers' Confession

People and Events
Teacher's Guide

spacer above content
Sex and Race

Why was intimate contact between the races so taboo?

Jane Dailey:
Intimate contact between the races was taboo for a variety of reasons. One important reason had to do with the way Jim Crow discrimination worked in the realm of the law. The point of segregation was to keep black southerners in their separate and inferior places. To do that, the state had to be able to tell who was who. In order to do that, like had to marry like. For more than 300 years, state legislatures wrote laws that defined whiteness for the purpose of marriage. Depending on the state and the decade, people who were more than half black, or a fourth black, or an eighth black, or one-sixteenth black, or even one-thirty-second black, could not marry anyone defined at law as white. These laws were the lodestar of segregation, because without controls on sex, racial classification became impossibly complicated. Interracial sex -- what white southerners called miscegenation -- undercut all forms of segregation based on genealogy.

John David Smith:
Intimate contact suggested degrees of shared humanity that slavery, then semi-slavery (peonage, convict lease, sharecropping, farm tenantry) sought to suppress. It also suggested the loss of white control over whom, whites or blacks, would control the racial and social control dynamics of a racially-hierarchical society. Whites could have intimate contact with blacks on the whites' terms but not vice versa. Whites feared that once black men were their sexual equals (ie. having white female sexual partners), that the whites' entire social structure would collapse. Some scholars see sexual control at the core of racial control mechanisms throughout southern history.

previous | back to questions | next

Site Navigation

Special Features: Online Forum | Do You Remember? | Teens and Segregation
In Till's Shadow | Till's Legacy | Sex and Race | Killers' Confession

The Murder of Emmett Till Home | The Film & More | Special Features
Timeline | People and Events | Teacher's Guide