Crossing Two Color Lines: Interracial Marriage and Residential Segregation in Chicago

AuthorDorothy E. Roberts
PositionGeorge A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology, Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights, Professor of Africana Studies, University of Pennsylvania. This article is based on the 37th Annual John E. Sullivan Lecture at Capital University Law School. I presented earlier drafts at workshops at the ...
In the opening of Brush Back, th e latest novel by best-selling author
Sara Paretsky, V.I. Warshawski returns to Rainbow Beach, in the Chicago
neighborhood where she grew up.1 There she sees a couple of women in
deep conversationone, an African-American with a short Afro; the other,
a gray-haired white woman.2 “A mixed-race du o would have been
assaulted in my childhood,” she remarks.3 In fact, Rainbow Beach was the
site where a white man killed a black teenager in July 1919 for crossing
Chicago’s infamous “color line” by swimming into white-only waters,
touching off one of the most deadly race riots in the nation’s history.4 As
Warshawski’s comment suggests, residential segregation in Chicago was
violently enforced and tightly linked to an unwritten rule against interracial
This article explores the interplay of interracial marriage, residential
segregation, and racial inequality in Chicago in the decades building up to
the civil rights revolutio n of the 1960s. At the time, blacks in the South
lived under an oppressive Jim Crow regime of official racial separation,
including statutes that prohibited interracial marriage.5 Chicago had no
anti-miscegenation law, the Illinois ban having been repealed after the
Copyright © 2016, Dorothy E. Roberts.
* George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology, Raymond Pace and
Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights, Professor of Africana Studies,
University of Pennsylvania. This article is based on the 37th Annual John E. Sullivan
Lecture at Capital University Law School. I presented earlier drafts at workshops at the
Columbia Critical Race Theory Workshop, Penn Law School, Russell Sage Foundation,
Tulane School of Law, UC-San Diego Department of Sociology, University of Cincinnati
Department of Sociology, and University of Florida Levin College of Law, and am grateful
to the participants for their comments. I also thank Sarah Adeyinka-Skold, Sonita Moss,
Dawn Androphy, Jordan King, and Samantha Ramin for excellent research assistance and
the American Council of Learned Societies for fellowship support.
2 Id. at 16.
3 Id.
4 Ken Armstrong, The 1919 Race Riots, CHI. TRIB.,
5 See infra note 27 and accompanying text.
Civil War.6 Yet, despite the absence of de jure segregation, residential
segregation dramatically affected the lives of interracial couples. Black-
white couples crossed two color lines that separated the races in terms of
both where they could live and whom they could marry.7
Residential segregation was essential to maintaining the racial order in
Chicago in a way that paralleled bans on interracial marriage in the South.
Separating blacks and whites geographically served as a powerful way to
maintain white supremacy and racial purity in Chicago despite the legality
of mixed race unions. Segregated neighborhoods both deterred interracial
relationships in the first place and penalized people who dared to breach
the taboo against them.8 Forcing blacks and whites to live apart constricted
their opportunities to get to know each other intimately. Once married,
residential segregation drastically limited where black-white couples could
find housing.9 The geographic and social boundaries imposed by
residential segregation also hampered the potential for the interracial
marriages that did occur to have an impact on the racial order in Chicago.
Some scholars have interpreted interracial marriage as a symbol and
means of overcoming racial hierarchies.10 But my findings on interracial
couples’ encounters with residential segregation demonstrate that the legal
ability to marry across race operates within, rather than transcends, the
racial order. Interracial u nions were governed by Chicago’s white
supremacist racial regimethe color lineenforced by residential
segregation.11 Thus, rather than challenging a separate type of
discrimination against mixed couples because of their “interraciality” or
advocating interracial marriage itself as a means of racial progress,
integration, and upward mobility, I focus on contesting institutionalized
racismlike the residential segregation th at subordinated all black people
in Chicago.
Part II provides background to my argument by discussing its
methodological and theoretical framework.12 I describe the archive of
interviews of black-white couples in Chicago I rely on for empirical
evidence of the relationship between residential segregation and interracial
marriage.13 I also describe the political ro le state statutes banning
6 See infra note 34 and accompanying text.
7 See infra notes 199203 and accompanying text.
8 See infra notes 230231 and accompanying text.
9 See infra note 197 and accompanying text.
11 See infra Section IV.B.
12 See infra Part II.
13 See infra Section II.A.
interracial marriage p layed in maintaining white supremacy in the United
States.14 Part III gives an account of the history of residential segregation
in Chicago in the decades between 1930 and 1960 and highlights four key
means of enforcing the city’s color line during this period: white terror,
racially restrictive covenants, federal housing policy, and white flight.15
In Part IV, I connect the two color linesresidential segregation and
anti-miscegenation.16 I first describe the impact racially segregated
neighborhoods had on black-white couples in Chicago.17 I then turn to the
theoretical implications of the relationship between residential segregation
and interracial marriage.18 I argue that residential segregation and anti-
miscegenation were intertwined means of maintaining an unequal racial
order, challenging both sociological theories about immigrant assimilation
and upward mobility and legal theories about the significance of interracial
marriage for racial equality.19 Black-white couples in Chicago were bound
by the city’s residential color line; their mixed marriages were unable to
transcend it.20 Only addressing institutionalized racism, I conclude, will
lead to the radical transformation of personal relationships required for
Americans to relate to each other as equal human beings.21
A.!My Archive and Book Project
This article is part of a book project that draws on an extraordinary
archive of in-depth interviews of approximately 500 interracial couples
conducted by Robert E .T. Roberts, a white anthropology professor at
Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago, over the course of five
decades.22 He began in 1937 as a 22-year-old master’s student at the
University of Chicago, recording the life histories of interracial couples
14 See infra Section II.B.
15 See infra Part III.
16 See infra Part IV.
17 See infra Section IV.A.
18 See infra Section IV.B.
19 See id.
20 See id.
21 See infra Part V.
22 Robert E.T. Roberts, 86, CHI. TRIB. (Jan. 23, 2002), http://
roberts []; Robert Roberts Named to Roosevelt Faculty, CHI.
TRIB. 218 (Sept. 18, 1949),
robert-roberts-named-to-roosevelt-faculty [].

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