This long-forgotten memory came to mind while reading Interracial Intimacies, a rich and outspoken new volume by Randall Kennedy, an African-American law professor at Harvard. More precisely, it recurred during Kennedy’s discussion of “racist folklore that equated amalgamation with something akin to bestiality” and his assertion that, even a quarter-century after my experience, there remains an “active belief, still widespread, that interracial sexual affection is shameful.”
Kennedy’s long book is thoughtful and wide-ranging, spanning everything from the slavery era to present-day battles over interracial adoption. His early chapters synthesize a burgeoning historical literature on pre-20th century American interracial intimacy. Most readers will readily accept Kennedy’s observation that “it would be difficult to construct a context more conducive to sexual exploitation than American racial slavery.” But some may be surprised to learn that after the Civil War, lawmakers’ efforts to prevent interracial unions actually increased: Anti-miscegenation statutes criminalizing interracial marriage were widespread across the entire United States by the beginning of the 20th century. Only in 1967, 13 years after Brown v. Board of Education, did the U. S. Supreme Court finally declare such laws unconstitutional in the case of Loving v. Virginia.
While much of Kennedy’s book is historical, his legal realism–his belief that individual feelings often trump written rules–informs his political worldview. History, he explains, generally shows that “the transformation of public opinion is even more important than the transformation of legal formalities” for achieving social change.
He applies this perspective most explicitly to his long discussion of current interracial adoption policies. Today, as in the past, a disproportionately large number of parentless children are black. Notwithstanding the South’s heritage of expressly prohibiting interracial adoption, by the late 1960s, the number of such adoptions nationally had begun to rise. By 1971 more than 2,500 black children annually were being adopted into white homes.
But the following year the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) declared that black children should be placed only in black homes. As a result, within two years, interracial adoptions declined by more than two-thirds. The group’s advocacy of race matching in adoption, Kennedy notes, “eerily echoed the rhetoric of white segregationists.” Yet even as recently as 1985, the NABSW reiterated that “the placement of black children in white homes is a blatant form of race and cultural genocide.” Their belief, Kennedy explains, is that “interracial adoption will create a host of ‘Oreos,'” much as those who oppose cross-racial adoption of Native American and Asian children fear the production of “apples” and “bananas.”
Kennedy’s opposition toward these racialist attitudes is intense. “Race matching,” he writes, “is in essence just another form of racial profiling,” applied in this instance to prospective parents rather than travelers, and Kennedy believes that its proponents should be forced “to defend the racial discrimination they embrace.” He further suspects that strong race-matching tendencies persist among social workers, even where statutes or policies expressly forbid it, and that such deception by officials is widespread “even while under oath in court proceedings.”
Kennedy’s antipathy toward using race as a factor in interracial adoption leads him toward explicit opposition to affirmative action. He is laudably frank in acknowledging this and admits his ambivalence about continuing such programs. “They have performed a great service,” he writes, but their use of race is “a toxic activity” that should be avoided if at all possible. But Kennedy is unequivocal about what he values most: “if dismantling affirmative action must be a part of the price of effectively doing away with race matching, … I, for one, am willing to pay.”
Quite admirably, Kennedy recognizes that his hostility toward race matching is analytically inseparable from opposition to racial preference programs. In fact, what he says of proponents of race matching may likewise apply to the many people in American higher education who obfuscate and dissemble when confronted with probing questions about the specific details of preferential admissions policies. “Sincere proponents of bad ideas are often the worst kind of fanatics,” Kennedy explains. “True believers” will fight for what they know is right “even if it entails engaging in deception.”
Kennedy concludes that “we should distrust all who would draw racial lines, even (or perhaps especially) when they insist that they are doing so for good reasons.” His own yearning for “a society in which race has become obsolete as a significant social marker” may strike committed racialists as naive, but Kennedy rightly sees himself as championing Frederick Douglass’s amalgamationist dream that someday all Americans will be “blended into a common nationality.” Interracial Intimacies is an important, challenging, and thought provoking step toward that goal.