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• Do multiracial subjects—and the interracial unions that produced them
—challenge racism, or do they simply provide opportunities for racism
to be reorganized and reinscribed? Do the growing numbers of each
signal, in other words, the decline of racism, as David Hollinger would
have us believe, or do they simply update and revise racial hierarchies,
White supremacy, and the view of races as distinct types, as Henry Yu
and others argue?
Tiger Woods Is Not the End of History: Or, Why Sex across the Color Line Won’t Save Us All
Author(s): Henry Yu
Reviewed work(s):
Source: The American Historical Review, Vol. 108, No. 5 (December 2003), pp. 1406-1414
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association
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Amalgamation and Hypodescent: The Question of Ethnoracial Mixture in the History of the
United States
Author(s): David A. Hollinger
Source: The American Historical Review, Vol. 108, No. 5 (Dec., 2003), pp. 1363-1390
Published by: American Historical Association
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Accessed: 20/08/2009 12:40
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AHR Forum
Amalgamation and Hypodescent: The Question of
Ethnoracial Mixture in the History of the United States
IN THEMIDDLEOFA JULYNIGHTIN 1958, a couple living in a small town in Virginia
were awakened when a party of local police officers walked into their bedroom and
arrested them for a felony violation of Virginia’s miscegenation statute. The couple
had been married in the District of Columbia, which did allow blacks and whites to
marry each other, but the two Virginians were subsequently found guilty of
violating the statute’s prohibition on marrying out of state with the intent of
circumventing Virginia law.1
That same summer, Hannah Arendt, the distinguished political theorist, an
emigre from Hitler’s Germany then living in New York City, was writing an essay
on school integration. That issue had been brought to flashpoint the previous year
in Little Rock, Arkansas, by President Eisenhower’s use of federal troops to enforce
the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court that public schools were no longer to be
racially segregated. But Arendt used her essay on school integration, which had
been commissioned by the editors of Commentary,to talk also about miscegenation
laws. Arendt seems not to have known of what was happening in Virginia that
summer to Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple whose last name was such a
fitting emblem for a relationship that was being denied the sanction of law. But
Arendt insisted that, whatever the injustice entailed by the segregation of public
schools, a deeper injustice by far was any restriction on an individual’s choice of a
spouse. The laws that make “mixed marriage a criminal offense,” Arendt declared,
were “the most outrageous” of the racist regulations then in effect in the American
The stunned editors of Commentarybalked. An aghast Sidney Hook, to whom
This article was presented as the Harmsworth Inaugural Lecture for 2001-2002 at the University of
Oxford, May 14, 2002. For helpful comments on a draft, I want to thank David Brion Davis, George
Fredrickson, Jon Gjerde, and Richard Candida Smith. I am also indebted in various ways to Gareth
Davies, Kathryn Eigen, Daniel Walker Howe, James T. Kloppenberg, Michael Silber, and John D.
Peggy Pascoe, “Miscegenation Law, Court Cases, and Ideologies of ‘Race’ in Twentieth-Century
America,” Journal of American History 83 (June 1996): 64-65; Robert A. Pratt, “Crossing the Color
Line: A Historical Assessment and Personal Narrative of Loving v. Virginia,”Howard Law Journal 41
(1998), as rpt. in Kevin R. Johnson, ed., Mixed Race America and the Law (New York, 2003), 56-59.
2 Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock,” Dissent
(Winter 1959): 79. This incident is
analyzed by Werner Sollors, “Of Mules and Mares in a Land of Difference; or, Quadrupeds All?”
American Quarterly42 (June 1990), esp. 173-77.
DavidA. Hollinger
the editors showed a copy, rushed into print in another magazine to complain that
Arendt was making “equality in the bedroom” seem more important than “equality
in education.”3Arendt’s essay daring to suggest that the civil rights movement had
gotten its priorities wrong later appeared in yet another magazine, the more radical
Dissent, but only as prefaced by a strong editorial disclaimer and then followed by
two rebuttals, one of which actually defended legal restrictions on interracial
marriage. A well-meaning European refugee, said by friends to be hopelessly naive
about the United States, had raised publicly the very last topic that advocates of
civil rights for black Americans wanted to discuss in the 1950s: the question of
ethnoracial mixture.
To what extent are the borders between communities of descent to be
maintained and why? The question is an old one of species-wide relevance, more
demanding of critical study than ever at the start of the twenty-firstcentury as more
nations are diversified by migration, and as the inhibitions of the 1950s recede
farther into the past. The history of this question in the United States invites special
scrutinybecause this country is one of the most conspicuously multi-descent nations
in the industrialized North Atlantic West. The United States has served as a major
site for engagement with the question, both behaviorally and discursively. Americans have mixed in certain ways and not others, and they have talked about it in
certain ways and not others.
From 1958, I will look both backward and forward, drawing on recent
scholarship to observe what the history of the United States looks like when viewed
through the lens of our question. Certain truths come into sharper focus when
viewed through this lens, and whatever instruction the case of the United States
may afford to a world facing the prospect of increased mixture comes more fully
into view.
Why were Arendt’s contemporaries so eager to avoid the question of ethnoracial
mixture? Because they had good reason to expect that any discussion of it would
play into the hands of segregationists. Defenders of the Jim Crow system had been
saying for years that the whole issue was race-mixing, anyway. All that civil rights
agitation, they said, was an elaborate smoke screen for the simple truth, which was
that black men wanted white women. School integration in particularwas said to be
a slippery slope if not a conspiracy: the mixing of black and white in the classroom
would lead to more social contact, and ultimately to miscegenation.
Such charges on the part of segregationists would have been of less concern to
the liberals were not so many other Americans, including an imposing number of
white, northern opponents of segregation, dubious about marriage across the color
line. A Gallup poll of that very year showed that 96 percent of white Americans
disapproved of interracial marriage. This sentiment did not necessarily entail
support for the remaining laws against black-white marriage still being enforced in
Virginia and several other southern states, but it did mean that organizing to
overturn such laws was not a priority.
Only nine years after the Arendt episode, to be sure, the Supreme Court ruled
in the case of Loving v. Virginia that the Virginia statute was unconstitutional.
3 Sidney Hook, New Leader, April 13, 1959.
Amalgamation and Hypodescent
Things moved quickly in the 1960s.4 When Mildred and Richard Loving learned
that a major civil rights bill was being debated in Congress, they were inspired to
appeal their conviction. But black-white marriageswere still against the law in every
state but one south of the Mason-Dixon line as late as 1967, when the court’s ruling
in Loving ended legal restrictions on marriage across any and all color lines.5
Thereafter, white opposition to black-white marriages diminished gradually but
steadily, decade by decade.6 Black-white marriages themselves remained rare,
although they tripled in the quarter-centuryafter the court’s ruling.7
Yet Arendt understood more fully than did her exasperated friends that the
Virginia statute’s approach to the question of ethnoracial mixture was peculiarly
American. Even the Union of South Africa did not have a miscegenation statute
until 1949, and that one was based on the American model.8 The notorious
Nuremberg laws of Nazi Germanywere, as Werner Sollors has pointed out, inspired
partly by the miscegenation laws of the United States.9 The cosmopolitan Arendt
knew that racial restrictions on marriage were a real problem from a human rights
point of view, and were a striking historical anomaly that American liberals were
loath to face. The very word “miscegenation” was, after all, an American
contribution to the English language.
Prior to the coining of this term during the Civil War, “amalgamation”had been
the word generally used to refer to the mixing of races. This was true of Wendell
Phillips and a handful of other abolitionists who did espouse the eventual mixing of
the races as a goal,10and was true for alarmistswarning against it. But in 1863, the
very year emancipation made mixture more possible, “amalgamation”was replaced
by the more ominous word that rang more like “mistaken mixture,” and under
circumstances not so different from those that surrounded Arendt nearly a century
later. In an episode familiar to specialists in U.S. history but known to few other
people today, Miscegenationwas the title of an anonymous tract widely distributed
4 An
important example of open opposition to miscegenation laws during the 1960s was William D.
Zabel, “InterracialMarriage and the Law,”Atlantic (October 1965): 75-79.
Loving v. Commonwealthof Virginia,388 U.S. 1; 87 S.Ct. 1817; 1967 U.S. Marylandrepealed its
miscegenation statute just prior to the court’s action. Fourteen states in the Far West and upper Middle
West repealed their statutes between 1952 and 1966.
Polling data are reviewed in one of the most carefully detailed monographsyet addressed to the
history of ethnoracial mixture in the United States, Paul Spickard, Mixed Blood: Intermarriageand
Ethnic Identityin Twentieth-Century
America (Madison, Wis., 1989), esp. 192-93.
7 Martin
Kilmjin, “Trends in Black/White Intermarriage,”Social Forces 72 (1993): 119-46.
8 A. Leon
Higgenbotham and Barbara K. Kopytoff, “Racial Purity and Interracial Sex in the Law
of Colonial and Antebellum Virginia,”in Werner Sollors, ed., Interracialism:Black-WhiteIntermarriage
in AmericanHistory,Literature,and Law (New York, 2000), 138-39. Higgenbotham and Kopytoff quote
the South African minister of the interior’s presentation to the assembly of that country in 1949, in
which the minister urges opponents of the proposed legislation to consider the fact that “thirtyout of
the forty-eight states of the United States” have “found it necessary to take legislative steps” of exactly
the sort he proposed for South Africa.
9 Sollors, “Introduction,”Interracialism,6. Sollors cites Heinrich Krieger, Das Rassenrechtin den
VereiningtenStaaten (Berlin, 1936).
10Phillips’s most famous utterance on this theme was his address on the Fourth of July, 1863, in
Framingham, Massachusetts, in which he endorsed, and called by the name of “amalgamation,”that
“sublime mingling of the races, which is God’s own method of civilizing and elevating the world.” The
history of the pre-Civil War discourse about amalgamation has recently been clarified by Leslie M.
Harris, “From Abolitionist Amalgamators to ‘Rulers of the Five Points’: The Discourse of Interracial
Sex and Reform in Antebellum New York City,” in Martha Hodes, ed., Sex, Love, Race: Crossing
Boundaries in North American History (New York, 1999), 191-212.
David A. Hollinger
in the North late in 1863 calling on the Republican Party to embrace the cause of
race-mixing and make it the basis for that party’s campaign of the following year.
The tract was a hoax, written and distributed by two proslavery journalists who
hoped to push the Republicans into endorsing this manifestly unpopular idea and
thus to be more likely to lose the election to the Democrats. As Sidney Kaplan has
demonstrated, the abolitionists themselves were suspicious from the start.1 The
abolitionists did not know the tract was a hoax until after the election, when
Abraham Lincoln’s success rendered the revelation of the hoax a minor footnote to
the campaign. But all during the campaign, the Republicans apparently felt about
the anonymous author much the same way liberals of 1958 felt about Arendt.
Eventually, miscegenation would become an ostensibly neutral word,12 but one
that flourished in a Jim Crow discourse alongside another term that came into use
for the mixing of white Americans with each other. This was the notion of the
“melting pot.” It had been around since the earliest years of the Republic, but it
gained currency at the start of the twentieth century in relation to massive
immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. This problematic figure of speech
was used primarily to address the prospects for the incorporation of these
predominantly Italian, Jewish, and Polish immigrants and their descendants, and
not simply as ethnic groups within a plural society but as individuals who would as
a matter of course intermarry with the British and other Northwestern European
stocks. What made the term problematic was an ambiguity analyzed by Philip
Gleason and others. Was the idea to melt down the immigrants and to then pour the
resulting, formless liquid into preexisting cultural and social molds modeled on
Anglo-Protestants like Henry Ford and Woodrow Wilson, or was the idea instead
that everyone, Mayflower descendants and Sicilians and Irish and Ashkenazi and
Slovaks, would act chemically upon each other so that all would be changed, and a
new compound would emerge?13
Although both versions of the melting pot had their champions and their
critics-and of course there were strong voices against both, preferring to keep out
altogether any immigrants who were not “Nordic”-very few of the early twentiethcentury discussants of the melting pot even mentioned blacks, for whom mixing with
whites was “miscegenation.”14 Yet when Ralph Waldo Emerson had spoken before
Sidney Kaplan, “The Miscegenation Issue in the Election of 1864,” in Kaplan,American Studies
in Black and White: Selected Essays, 1949-1989 (Amherst, Mass., 1991), 47-100. Kaplan’s classic
analysis of the “miscegenation hoax”was first published in 1949. For a recent, authoritativestudy of the
hoax and of the entire discourse about “amalgamation”and “miscegenation” during the antebellum
and Civil War eras, see Elise Lemire, “Miscegenation”:
MakingRace in America (Philadelphia, 2002),
esp. 115-44. Lemire argues that the literary depiction of black-white intimacy helped create the very
categories of black and white as these categories had come to be popularly understood in the United
States by the time of the Civil War.
12 Even W. E. B. Du Bois used
“miscegenation”interchangeablywith “amalgamation”and “racial
mixing.” His learned essay of 1935, “Miscegenation,”intended for an encyclopedia but not published
during his lifetime, is available in Sollors, Interracialism,461-73.
Philip Gleason, “The Melting Pot: Symbol of Fusion or Confusion?” American Quarterly16
(Spring 1964): 20-46. Invocations of the figure of the melting pot in our own time have largely
forgotten the element of anti-Anglo aggression entailed in some of its early formulations. In the
climactic scene of Israel Zangwill’s play of 1909, The Melting-Pot,a major agent in the popularization
of the concept, the Jewish immigrant hero envisages a future in which Mayflower descendants will be
transformed in the fiery crucible and made equal to more recent immigrantsfrom many lands.
Among the few who did this was Zangwill himself, in a fleeting reference at the very end of his
Amalgamationand Hypodescent
the Civil War about an American “smelting pot”-a slightly different figure of
speech associated originally with the concept of amalgamation-he had explicitly
included “Africans and Polynesians” in addition to “all the European tribes.”15Not
that Emerson’s welcoming of people of all colors and from all continents was shared
by that many of his white contemporaries. Quite the contrary. Emerson here spoke
for a tiny minority. But he spoke in the idiom of melting, or smelting, before the
vocabulary had changed. As the new word-miscegenation-became
with black-white mixing, a preoccupation of the years after the Civil War, the
residual European immigrant aspect of the question came to be more t …
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