There is a brand new Pew Poll out that indicates that interracial marriage has increased five-fold in the fifty years since the US Supreme Court found laws banning it unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia. Of course, almost half of Republican voters in Mississippi think interracial marriage should still be illegal. Over at the Alt-Right site, American Renaissance they disapprove of interracial marriage (surprise!).
The rise in interracial marriage seems to belie an old racist idea summarized by the old cliché, “Birds of a feather flock together.” This idea is that it is natural for people of one race to separate themselves from those of a different race. Even today, scientific racists try to offer all kinds of arguments about how natural race prejudice is. (I’ve published some criticisms of these kinds of arguments here and here.)
Part of the power of racist ideology is the naturalization of racism. Racists often take the position that racial differences are not the product of human actions or political power, but are the result of nature (or God). Those of us who oppose racism, they say, are not arguing against other people but against nature itself. This has two advantages for the racist. First, it casts the anti-racist position as particularly futile since the anti-racist is trying to argue against the laws of nature. Second, it removes the agency from the racist entirely: “Hey, I’m just reporting the facts, I’m not responsible for nature!”
I’m writing this on the 121st anniversary of the Plessy v. Ferguson which entrenched the legalized “separate but equal” doctrine of racial segregation into American law. On May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court found that it was perfectly fine for the law to require separate railroad coaches for white and black passengers. They argued that the law was simply following the natural order of things: the law did not create racial distinctions, it merely reflected distinctions that were created by nature (my emphasis added):
A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races — a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color — has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races, or reestablish a state of involuntary servitude.
The object of the [Fourteenth] amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but, in the nature of things, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.
Racial distinctions were built into nature itself, to argue otherwise is like howling at the moon. The human laws simply followed natural laws. In the twentieth century all kinds of scientific theories were put forth to prove that preferring members of your own race was rational and natural. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Franklin H. Giddings (1855-1931), the third president of the American Sociological Association put forth the idea that our fundamental likes and dislikes, and basic social feelings express themselves as an “an awareness of similarities of behavior and of character (and of conflicting dissimilarities) becomes a consciousness of kind” (p. 17). One way to see this “consciousness of kind” was that people of different races naturally sorted themselves by race.
In the 1930s and 1940s, British anthropologist Sir Arthur Keith, took Giddings’s ideas and combined them with some others into a full-blown theory of human evolution. Keith argued that race prejudice was a key driver of human evolution. Darwinian evolution depends on separation between different populations to create new species. Birds of one species settle on two different islands, for example. If conditions on the first island select for different features than birds on the second island, eventually we will get two different species of bird. Biologists call this speciation. The problem, Keith thought, was that the geographic barriers that commonly caused evolution in other organisms didn’t exist for people who could travel widely. Thus, Keith argued, racial prejudice could cause the same kind of reproductive isolation: white people and black people might not be two different species right now, but racial prejudice would eventually cause humans to speciate.
Unless you are specialist in the history of 20th century biology or anthropology (hi guys!) you’ve probably never heard of Keith. But the Alt Right loves him. His work was very popular with white southerners propping up segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. Over at the neo-Nazi site, Stormfront, one poster tells us:
I consider Sir Arthur Keith to be one of the greatest anthropologists of all time. He wrote a number of important books and essays on human evolution and race. And wrote his famous “Place of Prejudice” speech, explaining the scientific basis of ethnocentrism.*
All of this nonsense is in the service of one simple idea: it is natural to hate, or at least reject, members of other races. Racist policies, therefore are simply reflections of human nature and anti-racist policies will never work to diminish this natural race prejudice. Unfortunately, for the racists, the United States has been slowly showing them to be wrong. Slowly, but surely.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.