Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy
By Sheryll Cashin
This article appears in the Fall 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
Jean Toomer, one of the brightest lights of the Harlem Renaissance, the unprecedented outpouring of African American creativity during the 1920s, was also one of its most conflicted personalities. Racially ambiguous in appearance, he eventually distanced himself from the black culture he had evoked so movingly in Cane, his masterpiece hybrid of poetry and fiction. Resisting simplistic binary classification, he embraced the idea of mixed-heritage people as harbingers of a new, progressive kind of American. As he was in his art, Toomer proved himself somewhat ahead of the curve. Today, more Americans are staking a claim to their full racial selves while exploring their various ethnic strains in art and literature. A timely new entrant to this conversation is Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy, in which Sheryll Cashin examines the impact of racial mixture on our nation’s politics and society.
“This book does not purport to offer a comprehensive social or legal history of attempts to thwart race mixing,” she writes early on. Still, what background she does provide takes up nearly a third of this slender book. That’s probably more than we need as an introduction to her premise, which suggests that in the future whites may get awakened in sufficient numbers to join their fellow citizens in enabling the United States to reach its glorious promise.
Cashin asserts, “I believe that rising interracial intimacy, combined with immigration and demographic and generational change, will contribute to the rise of what I call the culturally dexterous class.” She sprinkles in that buzzworthy phrase and others that could just as easily be found in the latest Malcolm Gladwell bestseller, terms like “social epidemic,” “ardent integrators,” and “coalitions of the ascendant.” Cashin envisions these newly evolved citizens emerging specifically from white America; if any group already embodies the adroitness that she describes, it’s African Americans.
One could argue (and Cashin doesn’t resist this notion) that cultural dexterity is precisely what has enabled them to endure and thrive in a country built on and dependent upon white supremacy. To her credit, Cashin, like Toomer, avoids binary discussions of race, which were perhaps outdated as soon as they began. She includes Latinos and indigenous peoples in her examinations, while taking care to distinguish Portuguese, French, Dutch, Scots, Irish, and English peoples when tracking the creation of whiteness. Her attempts to describe ethnic divisions that were often based on visual difference result in images that depend very much on each reader’s perspective. What should one make, for example, of “pale-faced people”? “Dark and light people”? “Milky mulattoes”?
Cashin aims to show that our country’s predatory capitalists manipulated the notion of white racial purity to control the white menial class and prevent the kind of interracial coalitions that would foment their downfall. Her best observations point out that the desire for power, land, free labor, and cash usually outweighed simple racial animus. In colonial Virginia, she writes, “restrictions on love or lust between pale and dark people originated not from any innate antipathy to interracial sex but from a capitalist desire to promote black chattel slavery.”
Similarly, 19th-century “miscegenation laws and the racial hierarchy they supported were designed to enable asset accumulation.”
In Cashin’s view, Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, passed in 1924, was a pivotal document in the ongoing quest to discourage interracial connections. It was, she contends, “the most rigid antimiscegenation law in the United States” and an attempt to “build a wall around whiteness.” This legislation brought the law down on Mildred and Richard Loving, the interracial couple whose battle to be legally married resulted in a historic 1967 Supreme Court victory, celebrated on June 12 across the country as Loving Day.
In addition to the parties and commemorations, the Lovings’ story has twice been given cinematic treatment, most recently in 2016. Since their saga remains very much of the moment, Cashin recalls more of it than is necessary, including facts and details her readers are likely to already know. This is also true of some of the observations she offers throughout, such as the idea that intimate friendships can promote racial understanding, that white people are apt to claim a colorblind identity, and that people of color are more apt to be conscious of how race operates in society. Near her conclusion, she writes that “culturally dexterous people may be our only hope for disrupting hoary scripts.”
Because Cashin is recognized as a first-rate legal scholar and author of several acclaimed books, I wasn’t surprised to also encounter information that I didn’t know. This included the fact that descendants of the famed union of Pocahontas and John Rolfe were exempted from the one-drop rule of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, a loophole that became known as “the Pocahontas exception.” I also learned that while all antimiscegenation laws prohibited white-black marriages, “no U.S. antimiscegenation laws ever barred whites from marrying Chicanos or any other Hispanic group. Similarly, only a small minority of states banned marriages between whites and indigenous people, as a ban would have interfered with white men’s ability to marry native women and thereby claim any attendant land.”
Cashin’s account of Richard Mentor Johnson’s misadventures and predations were especially fascinating. The ninth vice president of the United States, he lived openly in common-law marriage with Julia Chinn, a mixed-race slave. Johnson’s story has more twists and turns than can fit into the space provided here, and Cashin’s attention to them is one of her book’s more satisfying digressions.
She devotes the final portion of her book to an audaciously hopeful vision of the American future. Cashin predicts that attitudes about race will improve drastically, partly through continued race-mixing of the romantic and platonic varieties, improved cultural dexterity on the part of whites, and a marked decline in the centrality of whiteness. She offers this bright forecast even while noting that anti-black racism in particular is not solely the province of whites. Black people are “the group that all nonblacks have the most reluctance to integrate with,” she reports, and “in the adoption market, like the dating market, black Americans sit at the bottom of a still-extant racial hierarchy.” Cashin anticipates that some readers will consider such factors and dismiss her views as too rose-colored to take seriously. “Many a cynic will believe that we cannot overcome supremacy constructed and reified for centuries or the plutocracy that results,” she writes. She seems to suggest an either/or proposition when in reality plenty of people continue to fight white supremacy even amid their cynicism—not because they are especially hopeful but because there is no plausible alternative to constant struggle. Some readers, cynical or not, will also believe it’s possible to be culturally dexterous without loving across racial lines. Is love, as nebulous and ephemeral as it often is, any more effective in this conflict than common sense, political astuteness, or enlightened self-interest?
While I don’t share Cashin’s bright outlook, I recognize that her optimism is a radical stance, and I don’t begrudge her effort to encourage others to join her. “Those willing to step out on faith in a greater idea can rewrite this script,” she urges. That would be one giant step indeed, and an epic stride for all humanity.