"Oreo" Nation

By Garrow, David J. | The Washington Monthly, March 2003 | Go to article overview

"Oreo" Nation


Garrow, David J., The Washington Monthly


INTERRACIAL INTIMACIES: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption by Randall Kennedy Pantheon Books, $30.00

THREE DECADES AGO, DURING my final undergraduate semester, I ventured south to visit the graduate school I'd decided to attend. Upon returning north, I told my best friend that during the trip I'd met a young woman whom I'd slept with. My friend was eager to learn more, but when I mentioned that the woman was black, he reacted with unabashed horror and salacious curiosity.

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? …

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