Author looks back at how interracial couples have stood up to white supremacy

Nation

JUDY WOODRUFF: This week marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision Loving vs. Virginia.

In 1967, the justices struck down Virginia's laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

In her latest book, "Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy," Georgetown University law Professor Sheryll Cashin explores the history of white supremacy in this country and how relationships between different races challenge that ideology.

As part of our Race Matters series, I sat down with Cashin yesterday.

Sheryll Cashin, thank you very much for joining us.

So, the title of the book refers to the Virginia couple, Richard Loving, his wife, Mildred, who were arrested, thrown in jail for the crime of marrying each other in the state of Virginia in the 1950s, and then, in 1967, the Supreme Court decision.

But your story, your telling of this story, the book, goes much earlier than that, to the — before the beginning of this country.

SHERYLL CASHIN, Author, "Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy": The anti-miscegenation law was created as part of the law of slavery.

In the 1600s, you had white indentured servants and black indentured servants and slaves working together, fraternizing together. And when slave owners wanted to transition to black chattel slavery, they had this problem. And so they put in slave codes laws that penalized interracial sex and marriage. And that was — began in the 1660s.

And so, for the next 300 years, you had the state of Virginia and other states trying to separate people like Mildred and Richard Loving.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Going back to the beginning, was this something that was just bred in the psyche of the people who lived in this country? Where did it come from?

SHERYLL CASHIN: Well, in the elite capitalist class, the landed gentry that could afford to buy big estates and own people, this idea of the supremacy of the white Christian goes back to the Crusades.

But there is much evidence that, in colonial Virginia, in the colonies, the working bonded people didn't have a concept of whiteness or supremacy or race at all. They related to each other as struggling people.

It's only when the slave owning class needs to teach people to treat each other differently based on race for utilitarian reasons that that begins.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What were the forces along the way in the history of this country that were pushing against people coming together, that were working against, not just intermarriage, but friendships, any kind of connections between the races?

SHERYLL CASHIN: Right.

Wherever you have a regime of the color line, whether it's slavery or Jim Crow or a divide-and-conquer kind of politics, there's an economic story there.

What the elites most feared was that struggling whites and people of color would come together in politics to demand more of economic elites.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, along the way, as you point out throughout the book, there were also forces at work to bring the two — not just the two, but to bring all races together.

SHERYLL CASHIN: America has been in this dance from the beginning.

There have been two ideas, the beautiful, egalitarian, fundamental idea of universal human dignity in Thomas Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence, but also this regime of white supremacy that is really designed to help with capitalism.

And throughout this period, there have always been a small cadre of people that crossed lines for alliance or for love. And I feature some of those people. Some of my favorites are Frederick Douglass and Thaddeus Stevens, who not only were radical in their politics, but were radical enough to have women of a different race as their lovers or common law wives or — or wives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why were they able to prevail in some instances?

SHERYLL CASHIN: The radical Republicans behind Reconstruction prevailed with the idea that people of color and progressive open-minded whites would come together in politics for the common good and create things like public education.

My bottom line point is that the class of what I call culturally dexterous person that's open to difference in this country and wants to make it work is growing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that's what I wanted to ask you, because you do use the term cultural dexterity throughout.

SHERYLL CASHIN: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean by that?

SHERYLL CASHIN: So, cultural dexterity is the ability to enter a situation where you are outnumbered by a different group and experience that with comfort, even wonder, an enhanced capacity for dealing with people of a different group.

It's the opposite of colorblindness. It's the ability to see and understand difference and accept it, rather than sort of demanding that someone else assimilate to your cultural norms.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why do you think it's spreading? I know there are people who look at the racial divide in this country today and say, yes, we have made progress, but we have such a long way to go.

SHERYLL CASHIN: Yes, I will agree. I acknowledge that we're in a state of toxic polarity.

But all I'm saying is that I believe we're going to get to a point where a critical mass of folks, particularly white people in this country, have accepted the loss of centrality of whiteness. And when you combine those folks with growing populations of people of color, you're going to get a majority coalition that will fight together for the common good.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even if, along the way, you may always have a group of people who fiercely believe something different.

SHERYLL CASHIN: Yes.

I'm not saying that interracial relationships are going to make racism go away, or — nothing like that. There will always probably be some people, unfortunately, that are racist. But I think they're a minority now. And I think they will continue to be a minority in this country.

And what gives me hope is that there is a growing population of folks who like diversity and want to make it work and want to be part of the coalition for bringing everybody along.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sheryll Cashin, the book is "Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy,"

Thank you very much.

SHERYLL CASHIN: Thank you so much.

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