Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption.

Author:Forde-Mazrui, Kim
Position::Book Review

INTERRACIAL INTIMACIES: SEX, MARRIAGE, IDENTITY, AND ADOPTION. By Randall Kennedy. New York: Pantheon Books. 2003. Pp. viii, 677. $30.


Are you free to choose the race of your spouse, ... of your child, ... of yourself? Historically, the legal and social answer to these questions was No. Matters of racial identity and interracial intimacy were strictly circumscribed by ideologies of racial essentialism and separation, ostensibly rooted in science, morality, and religion. In contrast, according to Professor Randall Kennedy (1) in his new book, Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption, the answer to all three questions should be a resounding Yes. The exclusive source of racial identification and intimacy should be individual choice, free from legal and social interference. The reality today is somewhere in between. In matters of sexual and marital intimacy, the law takes a neutral posture, but significant social constraints remain. And in matters of adoption and racial identity, both law and social norms continue, albeit with decreasing fervor, to restrain individual choice in service of collective notions of racial appropriateness.

Kennedy challenges remaining obstacles to individual self-determination in matters of interracial intimacy and identity. He takes a candid look at America's historical and continuing aversion to intimacy between people of different races, an inquiry that reveals the deep and pathological nature of America's racial ideology. He also considers the meaning of race and the burdens imposed by essentialist definitions of race on the identities and intimate relations of those who would live otherwise. Finally, Kennedy criticizes America's continued resistance to interracial adoption, particularly involving black and Native American or Indian (2) children, a resistance that, in Kennedy's view, favors culturalist agendas at the expense of children's welfare.

The book is not, however, pessimistic. It is inspiring. Although opposition to interracial intimacy has reflected a repugnant and often brutal ideology of racial hierarchy, interracial relationships have always developed, revealing the indomitable power of human intimacy. Moreover, significant progress has occurred in the direction of racial tolerance. Kennedy hopes this progress will continue, aided by his book, which aims to "mov[e] interracial intimacy to center stage as a necessary focus of inquiry for anyone seriously interested in understanding and improving American society" (p. 12).

Interracial Intimacies will draw criticism from some quarters. Critics will have difficulty, however, in challenging the scholarliness of Kennedy's methodology, as he endeavors to take competing perspectives seriously, considering their merits with a degree of balance, precision, detail, and candor on issues which are all too often discussed in abstract generality and hyperbole. Instead, critics are likely to take issue with Kennedy's ideology. He is a liberal individualist who consistently defends private choice regarding intimacy and identity, against interference from the state or groups claiming control over personal intimacy for the sake of communal interests. The most public criticism will likely come from blacks on the left. Kennedy unflinchingly criticizes all justifications for discouraging interracial intimacy, including claims that multiracial relationships and identities undermine black cultural and political solidarity. Other likely critics include traditional racialists, who believe the races are fundamentally distinct and should not intermingle, particularly in the context of sex, marriage, and adoption. Although likely less open in their criticism in today's racial climate, traditional racialists exist in substantial numbers, as revealed by polls indicating that one in five white Americans believe interracial marriage should be illegal. (3) Because I largely agree with Kennedy's ideology, my criticisms are few, and I recommend the book wholeheartedly.

Interracial Intimacies also has important implications beyond race. The principles advanced by Kennedy in defense of individual freedom and self-determination in matters of intimacy and identity afford a basis for evaluating social and legal restrictions on the intimate relations of homosexual (4) people. The human ideals of love, trust, and compassion that Kennedy advocates and celebrates arguably should extend to those members of our community who happen to fall in love with people of the same sex. Accordingly, in addition to promoting racial tolerance, the lessons of Interracial Intimacies counsel greater tolerance for intrasexual intimacies.

In Part I, in addition to describing the book, I identify and analyze Kennedy's core claims about the legitimate role of the state and social groups in matters of interracial sex, marriage, identity, and adoption. Although I agree substantially with Kennedy's perspective, I question his quite radical position that racial identity should be exclusively a matter of personal choice. (5) His position, I argue, is unrealistic at the present time and, more importantly, threatens to undermine efforts to remedy the effects of past racial discrimination and to deter present discrimination. I also criticize Kennedy's opposition to race matching in adoption as too extreme, in that he would oppose consideration of race even if evidence persuasively demonstrated that same-race placements were in general better for black children. (6) I broaden my focus, in Part II, to intimacies between people of the same sex. I argue that the principles on which Kennedy relies for accepting interracial intimacies support the acceptance of intrasexual intimacies.


    1. Sex and Marriage

      Kennedy's historical account reveals certain defining features of America's ideological opposition to interracial sex and marriage. A principal underlying premise of that opposition was an understanding of nature and scientific truth. Racial groups were understood as fundamentally different, and intimate relations between them were considered unnatural. Those who would engage in such relationships were commonly believed to be mentally disturbed or overcome by bestial passion. Another justification for opposing interracial relationships was morality and religious doctrine. In justifying Virginia's antimiscegenation law, for example, the lower court in Loving v. Virginia (7) explained, "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents .... The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix." (8) Similarly, Massachusetts defended its antimiscegenation law as fulfilling the "Infinite Wisdom" of "God's design." (9)

      Remarkable was the strength and depth of opposition. "[A]mong white southerners," Kennedy found, "the proscription against interracial marriage and sexual intercourse constituted the racial discrimination of greatest importance, and thus the one most in need of defense" (p. 85). Of all segregationist laws, prohibitions of interracial sex and marriage were the most numerous and geographically widespread; among such laws, only blacks were universally barred from marrying whites. Indeed, every other segregationist law was defended in part on the need to deter interracial intimacy, and proposals to grant legal rights to blacks were opposed most effectively with the simple question, "Do you want your daughter to marry a Negro?" (10) Opposition to interracial relations was also defined by an emotional aversion that provoked white people on mere suspicion to participate in brutal lynchings of black men, often involving the mutilation, castration, and burning of their live bodies. Indeed, the "[i]magery of the black man as sexual predator ... helped facilitate the lynching that claimed between four and five thousand black lives from the 1880s to the 1960s" (p. 192; citations omitted).

      An ironic feature of America's ideology has been its preference for interracial relationships of a purely physical or even coercive nature over sexual relationships involving genuine affection or, worse, marital commitment. Several states, such as Louisiana, banned intermarriage but not interracial sex. And while other states proscribed both sexual and marital miscegenation, the latter laws were often enforced with greater rigor. Although in Alabama, for example, interracial fornication was criminally prosecuted, conviction required proof of an ongoing relationship; occasional sex was not enough. "Tolerant though it might be of a loveless interracial quickie, or even a commercial transaction, Alabama law was intolerant of interracial romance" (p. 215). And, in general, "[w]hile relations between white men and black women could be approved of, or at least tolerated, as sexual exercise or comic diversion, a white man faced sanctions if he revealed genuine feeling for a black lover or children" (p. 76). As Frederick Douglas explained, "[w]hat they typically objected to ... was 'not a mixture of the races, but honorable marriage between them.'" (11)

      Consider also the controversy surrounding Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Jefferson's exalted place in American history has prevailed despite his direct participation in slavery, yet his reputation has received its most serious challenge, both during his life and today, by allegations that he had a sexual relationship with one of his slaves, especially the possibility that the relationship involved mutual affection. One Jefferson biographer, Dumas Malone, who steadfastly denied a Jefferson-Hemings affair, eventually conceded that sex between them "might have happened once or twice." (12) "Unwilling to admit the barest possibility of an emotionally serious relationship between his hero and Hemings," Kennedy observes, "Malone preferred to posit the alternative of an emotionally barren one-night stand" (p. 55).


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