Treason to Whiteness

Nathan Hall

When I was a teenager attending high school in suburban Texas, I briefly dated a girl of Filipino descent. The relationship only lasted a few months but was significant enough to raise the ire of virulently racist classmates simply because I am Caucasian. The graffito “Die Chink Lover!” replete with hangman’s nooses was carved into my desk, and vaguely threatening notes about being a “race traitor” were dropped into my locker. For a long time, I thought that my unfortunate experience was unique. Sadly, my ordeal was not very remarkable in the context of the United States’ abysmal history of race relations.

Consider the story of a 1950s New Orleans newborn named Jacqueline Henley. Abandoned by her white mother Ruby for resembling her secret black paramour, the child was deemed too white by the suspicious neighbors of her prospective black adoptive parents, the Green family. The Greens’ struggle to adopt her languished in various segregationist courts for years. Jacqueline Henley, an unlucky girl who seemingly did not belong anywhere, was a perfect example of the absurdity of establishing racial boundaries in law.

The treasured fallacy of the “one drop rule” (you can be 99 percent white, but one scintilla of “colored” ancestry condemns you to eternal blackness) went on trial as well in what became a fascinating legal exercise forgotten by mainstream historians. Lawyers in the case were strikingly transparent in admitting that Jacqueline’s quality of life would be substantially higher were she to continue living as white. Ultimately, the courts ruled it was one thing to exclude an outsider but quite another to let an insider out. In other words, it was fine to keep blacks in the ghetto but morally troubling for someone to consciously give up his or her white privilege. The bizarre transcripts of Green v. City of New Orleans begin Randall Kennedy’s latest book, “Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, and Adoption,” published by Pantheon, a subsidiary of Random House.

The broad, indistinct title is exceedingly misleading. Focusing almost entirely on sexual relations between black and white straight people in the United States, Kennedy is pointedly ignoring homosexual struggles, not to mention the travails of other people of color in the United States as well as on foreign shores. Aside from an eye-opening final chapter on the groundings of the Indian Child Welfare Act, the reader might perhaps get the feeling that any other racial discourse is suspect. Thankfully, Kennedy apologizes for the oversight in the preface and defends his choice by pointing out that encompassing all related issues would turn his book into an unreadable encyclopedia. Besides, black law issues are his specialty. Kennedy’s goal here is primarily to add his learned opinion to the already raucous discussion table. To that goal, he has succeeded with great measure.

Kennedy points to the historical record as ammo for argument by stating, “Openness to interracial intimacies has been a good barometer of racial enlightenment in thought and practice.”

He convincingly ties the acceptance of mixed marriages to the advancement of racial justice. However, he points out those black-white sexual relationships are an ever-changing social phenomenon that is all but impossible to ever fully and accurately document. Wasting no time, he also graphically and frankly recounts both the myths and realities linked to “miscegenation,” the interbreeding of people of different races.

“Interracial Intimacies” is a highly readable pop legal treatise. The book only falters when it ventures a bit too far outside of Kennedy’s expertise. For instance, he disagrees strongly with the practice of “race matching,” a goal of adoption agencies to hook up children with same-race families. Kennedy feels strongly that assuming a child would be better off in a home occupied by those who share his skin tone is ludicrous, citing numerous examples in which worthy providers were rejected in favor of monstrously poorer substitutes solely due to race. Despite the fact that this idea is indeed worthy of intense discussion and speculation, I for one feel his tacit dismissal of the tragic burden of stolen history inflicted upon American Indian parents is rash and imprudent, to say the least. Besides the fact that American Indians were obviously here first and thus should have been afforded some degree of respect by European immigrants, they had their children stolen and forced into re-education by brutal Christian missionaries on top of being murdered wholesale to speed up land grabs by whites. If the Indian Child Welfare Act officials want to preserve a rapidly disappearing way of life, that ought to be their prerogative.

Kennedy, who also wrote the simultaneously maligned and celebrated tome “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,” has an impressive academic resume. He received his bachelor’s degree from Princeton and his law degree from Yale. A Rhodes Scholar, he served as a law clerk to former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and is now a law professor at Harvard. He joins the ranks of black intellectual activists Cornell West and Henry Louis Gates Jr. in incorporating public politics and contemporary culture into academic research on race and society.

Recent statistics claim 1.5 million mixed race marriages exist in the United States now. A related survey finds 40 percent of Americans polled claimed to have dated someone of another race at least once. Contrast that with 1963, where 53 percent of Americans firmly believed that black-white marriages should be illegal in all conceivable cases. In fact, legislation banning such couplings remained on the majority of state books until around 1967 or so. Before that, children born to these unions were considered bastards, and their parents could be punished via beatings, jail time or both.

The still highly radical notion of a colorblind society is likely far off. Even a cursory glance at recent headlines proves race still matters, especially in terms of law. President George W. Bush’s simplistic attack, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day no less, on the University of Michigan’s law school affirmative action policy is a prime example. Currently, less than 4 percent of clerks employed by current Supreme Court justices have been people of color. Support for increased racial profiling in our post-Sept. 11 world has increased precipitously while mass arrests of alleged “enemy combatants” sadly echo the tragedy of the Japanese internments during the panicked days of World War II. In Kentucky, a black male who murders a white female is still more than 10 times more likely to face the death penalty than a white man convicted of killing a black woman. Interestingly enough, same-sex marriage advocates point to the historic case of Loving v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court struck down a ban on interracial marriage as legal precedent for their cause. The “Loving analogy” proved race is trivial then in terms of choosing a partner, just as today sexual orientation is as well. This notion of equal protection under the law pushes us to move past tolerance and into conscious action. Perhaps we have moved past the days of Thomas Jefferson sexually assaulting slaves like Sally Hemmings, but we also clearly have much more social and legal ground to cover.

To many people of color, my isolated introduction to the struggles still faced by interracial couples and families are by no means a revelation. However, Kennedy’s work here is a welcome addition to the already burgeoning field of mixed-race research. It might be very useful to anyone who has endured a similar crisis. Beyond that, the book has a great deal to say about the construction of race and its often tortured relationship with the legal system.

Randall Kennedy will appear at Ruminator Books in St. Paul on Monday, March 10 at 7:30 P.M. Ruminator is located at 1648 Grand Avenue.

Nathan Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]