The Roots of Racism

Will we ever get beyond the notion of racial identity?


From time to time a bit of news crosses the desk that makes the mind reel, the jaw drop, the head shake. So it was the other day when Public Policy Polling, a reputable albeit partisan firm, reported that 46 percent of Republicans in Mississippi think interracial marriage should be against the law.

The poll was taken in late March—that's March of 2011, not March of 1963. Even allowing for the small sampling size (400 respondents), it's shocking and dismaying to see such repellent attitudes so openly expressed.

But perhaps one shouldn't be shocked and dismayed. Perhaps, like Pauline Kael, the New Yorker film critic who didn't know anyone who voted for Nixon, one just needs to get out more. Besides, Mississippi is (according to Gallup) the most conservative state in the Union, and Republican primary voters are bound to be the ones hanging off the far end of the starboard davits on that right-leaning ship.

Even so. It's one thing to display a susceptibility to stereotypes, as George Allen seemed to do recently when he asked a black male newsman, "What position did you play?" It's something else again to voice support for the legal strictures of the Black Codes and Jim Crow. One would have thought the foundation on which such laws were erected would have crumbled long ago.

Then again, maybe not. Because the mentality of anti-miscegenation relies on some intellectual habits that are still very much with us.

There is, to begin with, the notion of racial identity. Your garden-variety bigot is apt to argue that the differences between the races are not superficial but quite profound. He is apt to tell you each race possesses its own essential nature, its own culture and mores, and that for this reason it is best if each sticks to its own kind.

Some would call that backward. Others would call it progressive. Put a happy-face on the same sentiments and you have something like Somerville Place, a blacks-only residential floor at the University of Southern California. Says USC, "The goals of Somerville Place aim to foster an understanding of and respect for Black culture." Ahh, that. The bigot and USC might differ on whether black culture should be respected, but they agree it exists. Interesting.

Somerville is not unique. Voluntary racial balkanization has greatly advanced in recent years, and rare is the major institution without a diversity office premised on the idea that people of different races bring with them different traits. As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor famously put it, "a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

Some might say this is far different from the racialism of the Jim Crow South—that Sotomayor spoke of experiences people live as a result of their ethnicity, not traits they are born with. And there is something to this. But it also would imply that, at some point in a happier future, the need for racial head-counting would disappear as people cease to experience disparate treatment. To the contrary: Diversity programs will always be needed, one gathers, even when discrimination no longer exists. Also interesting.

Second, there is the matter of what a friend likes to call the hive mentality. Opposition to intermarriage seems bizarre to those who think about people in an atomistic, individual-rights framework. If Bob and Mary are consenting adults, then their wedding is none of Steve's business, thinks Steve, so long as they aren't meddling in Steve's affairs. If their marriage takes nothing from his pocket and does not impede his movement, then why should he object?

Against this way of looking at things is set a very different framework: one that says people are not atomistic individuals but mere parts of a larger collective, and that their ostensibly autonomous behavior affects the larger organism in manifold ways, justifying state control over what might otherwise seem like personal choices.

Hence, e.g., widespread support for seat-belt laws and, more recently, the campaign against obesity—which used to be considered a byproduct of personal vices (gluttony and sloth) rather than a public-health issue. In each case the argument is made that seemingly personal choices actually have larger social consequences affecting the common good.

A similar hive mentality provides the rationale against intermarriage—miscegenation will "mongrelize" the white race, weaken the racial stock, and so on. If you think of Sally next door not as an autonomous individual but as a member of the tribe of white people, of which you also are a member in good standing, then whom she marries is very much your business.

Of course, you can support seat-belt laws on collective-good grounds and still oppose laws forbidding intermarriage (most people do) by saying the former are grounded in solid medical and financial facts, while the latter are grounded in nothing but vicious idiocy about white supremacy. Trouble is, that renders the position on intermarriage contingent, rather than absolute. If someone came along who could demonstrate that letting blacks and whites intermarry did indeed impose costs on society, then the collective-gooder would have to revise his position. The radical individualist would not: People have a right to marry whomever they please, he says, without regard for the wider societal effect.

Now one can certainly believe people of different races bring different things to the table, and believe as well that personal decisions have societal ramifications justifying state intervention, and still object strenuously to the bigotry of laws against racial intermarriage. A lot of people hold all three beliefs without contradiction, it seems fair to say. But it also seems fair to say that you cannot support laws barring intermarriage without believing in the two other notions as well. Beyond the boundaries of Mississippi, flagrant racism might have fallen out of favor. Its underpinnings, alas, have not.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.