Don’t Pass on Context: The Importance of Academic Discourses in Contemporary Discussions on the Multiracial Experience

Don’t Pass on Context: The Importance of Academic Discourses in Contemporary Discussions on the Multiracial Experience

Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival
Japanese American National Museum
Los Angeles, California

Steven F. Riley

The following is the slightly modified text from my opening remarks.

As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, ponder about re-electing our first black President, and begin the remaining 99 decades of the so-called “Mixed Millennium,” never in any point in time have there been so many ways to disseminate and share information about the multiracial experience: online, offline, YouTube, iPhones, blogs, podcasts, self-publishing, publishing on demand, etc. Thoughts and ideas that in the not too-distant past, that may not have been published until after death; can now be broadcast to the world before breakfast.  Never have so many, been able to say so much, so quickly. But while we marvel at the quantity of the information about multiracialism, I ask that we pause and consider the quality of the information about multiracialism.  Never have so many, been able to publish so much… and say so little, so quickly.

The purpose of this workshop is to encourage writers, filmmakers, and activists to consider discourses and texts outside of their own—or their subject’s—personal experiences during the formation of their respective projects.  The ideas discussed during the workshop should not be seen as mandatory or even suggested guidelines for projects, but rather topics for consideration to help an writer or artist present and communicate their ideas in a more meaningful way.

Just a quick question for the audience… What is the year of the first census that tabulated data on individuals of two or more races? [Audience responses were mostly “2000”, there was one “1890.”  The correct answer is “1850.”]

[By the census of 1850, the aggregate number of slaves in the United States was 3,204,313. Of this number, 246,656 were of mixed blood, mulattoes, The number of unmixed negro blood was, therefore, 2,487,455. The free black and mulatto population was 434,495, in the following proportions; blacks, 275,400; mulattoes, 159,095.]

There are three interconnecting areas of discussion that I find lacking in these contemporary discourses.  I will speak briefly on each of them and explain their importance and at the same time use the narrative of Richard and Mildred Loving as a central point of focus.

Our celebration of the Lovings is an excellent entrée into an examination of co-option and the distortion of an American historical narrative.  Similar to the reduction of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life into his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC, the narrative of the Lovings has been reduced into the story of “love denied.”  Dr. King did not die because he dreamt of what America could be; he died because he demanded that America be what it should be.  Few remember Dr. King’s criticism of the Vietnam War when he said,

“We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit.”

Like King’s legacy, the popular narrative of the Loving saga has often been crafted in a way that ignores historical facts and denies persistent inequalities.  Like in many stories, there are truths, lies, and omissions. The story of the Lovings is no exception.  It is not that the celebration of the Lovings is inappropriate, it is that it is inadequate.

On the site, the creators state that,

“The Loving Day name comes from Loving v. Virginia (1967), the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized interracial marriage in the United States. We found it quite perfect that a couple named Richard and Mildred Loving won their right to marry, and we know a good thing when we see it. So, Loving Day refers to two kinds of loving: the couple in the Supreme Court case, and the original definition of loving.”

Loving did not legalize interracial marriage in the United States.  It legalized interracial marriage in the 15 remaining states that still had anti-miscegenation laws.  (There were 16 states with such laws at the begining of the trial but the state of Maryland repealed its law while Loving v. Virginia was still pending.)  To its credit, does give the visitor a state-by-state and year-by-year breakdown of anti-miscegenation laws throughout the United States, nevertheless, the inaccuracy of this paragraph remains.  Loving neither increased the number of interracial marriages in the South nor did it create a so-called late-20th century “multiracial baby boom”—the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 did that by increasing immigration from Asia and Latin America.  In fact, ten states have never enacted anti-miscegenation laws. Loving did, according to Victor Thompson, “send a signal to the U.S. population that, in the eyes of the state, interracial marriage was no longer the ‘sin’ that it used to be—even if it still remained a sin in the minds of some.”  Yet even today in 2011, the state of Mississippi with the lowest ratio of white-to-black residents, and as a result the highest potential of interracial unions and multiracial births, reports the lowest rate of self-identified multiracial individuals in the country.

Our preoccupation and celebration with Loving—and in the case of with the word “loving”—diverts our attention away from the institutional inequities—that are still with us—that created “race” and racism as we know it and forced the Lovings to spend over half of their marriage fighting for their marriage.  While we may remember Richard Loving’s famous, “Tell the court I love my wife,” few remember their lawyer Bernard Cohen’s eloquent argument to the Supreme Court where he said,

“The Lovings have the right to go to sleep at night knowing that if should they not wake in the morning, their children would have the right to inherit from them. They have the right to be secure in knowing that, if they go to sleep and do not wake in the morning, that one of them, a survivor of them, has the right to Social Security benefits. All of these are denied to them, and they will not be denied to them if the whole anti-miscegenistic scheme of Virginia… [is] found unconstitutional.”

Race is a Social Construction

“Race is a social construction.” Though it has been nearly a century since scientists began to recognize that the concept of race has no basis in biology, yet race—or rather the belief in race—remains a salient force in our world today.  As most have you have already heard before, human beings are the most similar species on earth. When we speak of race, we speak of a concept originally designed for the commoditization, exploitation, oppression and near extermination of African, indigenous (and later Asian) populations. Race as biology is fallacious and we know it.  If we teach our children to tell the truth, then we should do the same.  I ask that writers and artists consider whether embracing an identity that is based in whole—or in part—on these social constructions merely reinforces those constructions.  As author Cedric Dover stated so eloquently in 1937, “Today there are no half-castes because there are no full-castes.” Additionally, little attention is paid to the role class has in self-identification.  It would be interesting to see projects that take leave of the college campuses, suburban enclaves, and coffee shops and investigate the lives of individuals in poorer rural and/or urban settings.

While multiracial identities give the appearance of a deconstruction of a social order based on race, I suggest otherwise. For example, many multiracial Americans of African/European descent understandably attempt to claim and reassert their non-African ancestry; reminding us how they are “a little French, a little Scottish, Italian, etc.,” few of us stop to ponder the near utter destruction of their African ancestry and how it has-even with the inclusion of European ancestry-been reduced to “black.”  While some may embrace a “Black/White” identity, I ask where are the “Luba/Lithuanians”, “Shona/Scottish”, “Ewe/Estonians”, “Igbo/Icelanders?”  It used to be our identities told us and others, where we came from, what we did, how we hunted, how we fished, where we pressed our wine, how we made cheese, when we planted, how we worshiped, and how we lived.  Only a few seem to know or notice these nearly infinite identities (even from Europe) have been reduced through the centuries by the onslaught of white supremacy to just a handful of exploitable commoditized categories. We think we can manipulate the morally corrupt framework of “race” into a modern utopia, but even the so-called “new” hybrid identities may be reabsorbed or discarded back into the oppressive essentialist elements.

Individuals and groups today in 2011 that insist and demand we all tell our whole “racial truth”, are no less misguided and insidious than the Virginians who insisted and demanded “racial integrity” in 1924.  While some criticize President Obama for identifying as Black, who here knows that “black” Mildred Loving had European ancestry along with Native American ancestry on both sides of her family tree?  What even the most ardent racists in Virginia knew—that apparently some activists today do not—was that “racial integrity” was and is pure nonsense.

I ask the creators in this room if they could create projects that consider what life in our society would be like without race.


My second area of discussion is by far, my personal favorite, and unfortunately completely neglected in the non-academic contemporary discourses.  Hopefully those in the audience will make my complaint—excuse the pun—history.

No serious discussion about multiracialism can begin without an understanding of history.  History is not merely important, it is essential.  Without an understanding of the past, we shall not only fail at transforming the future, we shall merely repeat it. Loving v. Virginia was the final battle in a 50+ year struggle to repeal all anti-miscegenation laws in the United States. For many, the history of multiracial America—if one even bothers to discuss history—begins in 1967 with Loving.  Yet even the history of this one case suggests that the genesis of multiracial America began much earlier.

As Kevin Maillard has stated,

“Looking back to Loving as the official birth of Multiracial America reinforces the prevailing memory of racial separatism while further underscoring the illegitimacy of miscegenations past. By establishing racial freedom in marriage, Loving also sets a misleading context for the history of mixed race in America. Even though Loving instigates the open acceptance of interracialism, it unintentionally creates a collective memory that mixed race people and relationships did not exist before 1967.”

Loving did not create an explosive growth in the multiracial population.  The heterogeneous residents of Caroline County, Virginia would have scoffed at such a notion just as the inhabitants of San Salvador would have scoffed at Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of their island.  Just as Columbus was a thousand of years too late to claim a “discovery,” those that suggest a post-Loving “multiracial baby boom” are 300 years too late.  If we are to use a point in time as a demarcation of the beginning of multiracial America, we should consider the year 1661, when the then colony of Maryland codified the first anti-miscegenation statute.

The fact that Richard Perry Loving and Mildred Delores Jeter began their courtship in 1950—when he was 17 and she was 11—clearly indicates that their relationship was not transgressive as far as their families were concerned.  In fact, the Jeters made it clear that “Richard [wasn’t] the first white person in our family,” indicating that Mildred—like most “black” Americans—had heterogeneous ancestry.  Perhaps the reason that the 1950’s Loving-Jeter courtship was non-transgressive within their families, was because such relationships were non-transgressive within their community of Caroline County, Virginia; which was known as the “passing capital of America” because so many light-skinned blacks were mistaken for whites.

White Supremacy provides us with what, as far as I can tell is the only interactive state-by-state map of anti-miscegenation laws that I know of. It is indeed—as they put it—“cool”.  Yet despite the information given about these statutes, we are presented no overarching reasons why these laws were enacted in the first place.  Nor are we told who wrote these laws. The site does, correctly state that, “The judiciary system played an important role in regulating interracial relationships.”  Yet something very important is missing from these texts.

Fortunately for us we have a scholar like Peggy Pascoe to tell us the whole truth.  The very first paragraph of her multiple award winning book, What Comes Naturally, Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America, states:

“This book examines two of the most insidious ideas in American history. The first is the belief that interracial marriage is unnatural.  The second is the belief in white supremacy. When these two ideas converged, with the invention of the term “miscegenation” in the 1860s, the stage was set for the rise of a social, political, and legal system of white supremacy that reigned through the 1960s and, many would say, beyond.”

No one should celebrate another “Loving Day” without reading this magnificent book.

In my last of the three areas of discussion, this perhaps is the most difficult to discuss, yet perhaps the most pervasive.  No force in American society has had—and continues to have—a stronger influence on identity than that of white supremacy.

While it is tempting to frame the narrative of the Lovings as a case of love denied by racial difference, there is more to the story.  Anti-miscegenation laws did much more than prevent the marital unions between men and women of different races.  Anti-miscegenation law in fact; transformed the fiction of race into a social reality.  Their enforcement meant that a persons racial identity had to be determined in order to receive a marriage license. Furthermore, the variation in punishments—based on the determined race of the litigants—reinforced the idea of racial hierarchy. Whereas for example, a white person and Indian would both face a $200 dollar fine and two years in prison for illegally getting married, while a white person and a black person would face a $500 fine and five years in prison for the same offense.  Anti-miscegenation laws also disenfranchised spouses and children.  To make matters worse, the idea of racial hierarchy was embraced even in states that had no anti-miscegenation laws. These laws adversely affected all people of color regardless of their marital unions. In short, anti-miscegenation laws were the cornerstone of white supremacy.  Yet despite the multitudes of non-academic discourses celebrating the demise of these laws, absolutely no mention is made in them about white supremacy.

The first anti-miscegenation statutes enacted in Maryland and Virginia in the 1660s were part of the broader strategy of supporting the growing institution of slavery.  The presence of interracial couples and their mixed-race offspring threatened the belief in racial difference, black inferiority, and notion of slavery altogether. To counter this perceived threat, these laws were enacted to create a physical, moral and psychological barrier between the whites and blacks and made the concept of the ownership of another human being acceptable.

On January 6, 1959, just six months after police officers entered through the unlocked front door of the Lovings and arrested the sleeping newly married couple for violating the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, they were sentenced to one year in prison. The sentence was suspended on the condition that they leave the state of Virginia for 25 years.  After passing sentence, the trial judge in the case, Leon M. Bazile infamously proclaimed:

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

Although Judge Bazile’s statement is ostensibly about the prevention of what he saw as putative marriages, a closer examination reveals a more sinister agenda. For him, not only did Mildred and Richard Loving not belong in the same bed, they—and all of their respective racial cohorts—did not belong on the same continent.  Although Jim Crow segregation could not send the “races” back to their separate respective “home continents,” it did the next best thing by consigning the races to their separate schools, separate theaters, separate hospitals, and separate water fountains.  Much like his predecessors almost 300 years before, Bazile reaffirmed the framework of white supremacy and the oppression of people of color via the ruse of anti-miscegenation laws.


While we all owe a debt of gratitude to the courageousness of Richard and Mildred Loving that can never be repaid, we should use care on how we celebrate their interracial marriage.  The increased attention towards multiraciality has brought—appropriately—more scrutiny, particularly from the academic community.  More scholars than ever before are examining the role of multiraciality within the framework of racial justice in the United States and abroad. In the case of Latin America, critics have begun to argue that “multiracialism, like the firmly discredited concept of Brazilian racial democracy, functions as an ideology that masks enduring racial injustice and thus blocks substantial political, social, and economic reform.”

The clever positioning by multiracial identity activists of the Loving marriage as the 1960s vanguards of multiraciality, promotes several troubling ideologies that should exposed and examined.  These ideologies effectively distance the Lovings’ saga from the greater African-American struggle for freedom and justice.  Firstly, the emphasis on the “marriage” of the Richard and Mildred Loving implies that these unjust anti-miscegenation laws had no adverse impact towards Black-Americans and other people of color as a whole.  Finally, and most importantly, the continual dissemination of the myth of increased multiracial births since the Loving decision, is an insidious maneuver that illogically seeks to erase the history of over three centuries of interracial marriages and the millions of descendants from those unions.  As I have stated before, we are not becoming a multiracial society, we already are a multiracial society and we have been so for centuries.

By the time the Loving decision marked its first anniversary on June 12, 1968, there was no sign of either a multiracial baby boom or an interracial marriage boom. While the Lovings were finally able to live quietly—and legally—as husband and wife in their Virginia home town, the racist attitudes that inspired the creation of anti-miscegenation laws were still very salient. (In fact, Alabama did not remove its unenforceable statute until 2000).  What “booms” that could be seen and heard were near and far and were those of dismay, protest and death.  Booms were heard loudly in January, 1968 when the North Vietnamese began the Tet Offensive that despite its military failure, shocked policy makers in Washington, D.C. enough that they became convinced that the war—even with its black and white comrades in brutal solidarity—could not be won.  Booms would be heard in cities like Newark, New Jersey—exactly one month after the decision, with riots over racial injustice. Then more “booms” in Detroit, just days later which would be just another one of the 159 race riots in the “long hot summer” of 1967. The most ironic and tragic “boom” would come from the shot of a rifle across the street from a Memphis, Tennessee hotel on April 4, 1968, which would fell Dr. King, America’s true non-violent symbol of racial reconciliation.  From hence “booms” would be heard in violent protest all over America.

The past two years have brought forth an unprecedented amount of critical examination of multiracialism.  Articles, books, live programs, even a conference—The first critical mixed-race studies conference—are forcing us to ask serious and important questions about how multiracialism and multiracial identities may impact  racial dynamics here and abroad.  Even Dr. Naomi Zack—who many of you have just seen in this morning’s movie Multiracial Identity defending the political recognition of a multiracial identity, has since, retracted that position in her article titled “The Fluid Symbol of Mixed Race” in the Fall 2010 issue of the journal Hypatia.

She states:

“The recognition of mixed race that I have advocated would proceed from where we are now, in a society where many people continue to think that human racial taxonomy has a biological foundation. Recognition of mixed race would be fair, because if racially “pure” people are entitled to distinct racial identities, then so are racially mixed people.  Also, the false belief in biological races logically entails a belief in mixed biological races. But, of course, in true biological taxonomic terms, if pure races do not exist, then neither do mixed races (Zack 1997, 183-84; Zack 2002, chap. 7).

However, by the time I finished writing Philosophy of Science and Race (Zack 2002), I had come to the conclusion that broad understanding of the absence of a biological foundation for “race,” beginning with philosophers, was more urgent than mixed-race recognition or identity rights.  Against that needed shift away from the false racialisms to which many liberatory race theorists still clung, advocacy of mixed-race recognition seemed self-serving, if not petty. And I think that the shift is still a work in progress. But still, the ongoing historical phenomena of mixed race and the distinctive experiences of mixed-race people continue to merit consideration, and I am grateful for this opportunity to revisit my earlier confidence and enthusiasm that mixed-race recognition was on the near horizon, with the full-scale undoing of race soon to dawn.”

She continues with,

“…The dangers of insisting on black and white mixed-race political recognition in a system in which blacks are disadvantaged is that a mixed-race group could act as a buffer between blacks and whites and re-inscribe that disadvantage. It is interesting to note that under apartheid in South Africa, there was not only a robust mixed population known as “colored,” but individuals were able to change their race as their life circumstances changed (Goldberg 1995).  From the perspective of mixed-race individuals, this example may seem as though even South Africa was more liberatory on the grounds of race than the one-drop-rule-governed U.S. (This is not to say that South African coloreds had full civil liberties under apartheid, but only that they were better off than many blacks.)  But from a more broad perspective, in terms of white–black relations, recognition of mixed-race identity, while it may advantage mixed-race individuals and add sophistication to a black and white imaginary of race, does little to dislodge white supremacy overall. The public and political recognition of mixed-race identities could be quite dangerous to white–black race relations overall if the position of blacks remained unchanged (Spencer 1999).  But continued obliviousness about mixed-race identities holds the immediate danger of denying the existence of injustice for some presumptively pure blacks who do not have the advantages of white parentage…”

With the next two years promising even more scrutiny of the discussion surrounding multiraciality, it is more important than ever that we all read the academic texts to help us create projects that can produce greater impact.

©2011, Steven F. Riley

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