Interracial Marriage in the United States of America* by Francis Wardle PhD

From the beginning, inter-group mixing and intermarriage have been important characteristics of U.S. society (Spickard, 1989). This article examines some of the historical, political, legal and social issues that have impacted interracial marriage in the U.S., focusing on Black-White relationships. The article discusses the unique way race has been, and continues to be, constructed in the United States, and how this affects interracial marriage. Specifically, White supremacy, the one-drop rule and the rule of hypodoscent, eugenics, and colorism will be examined, along with a brief review of the history of interracial marriage in the U.S. This discussion is embedded within an understanding of the U.S. political and legal structure, where many important laws, policies, and structures are created and maintained at the state rather than the federal level, but with the U.S. Supreme Court having final jurisdiction.

Interracial Marriage in Colonial America

One of the factors that leads people to marry outside of their group is an unbalanced ratio between men and women within a group. Also, when there are the large, homogeneous groups, people are less likely to marry outside of their own group. More interracial marriages occur when society becomes more heterogeneous – as it has in the U.S. since the 1960s (and especially since the 1990s). Finally, there is a steady increase of out-marriage in successive generations of immigrants – during the first generation few immigrants intermarry, while more second and third generations do (Spickard, 1989).

Other scholars have examined the barriers that have to be crossed in interracial marriage, and argue that religious barriers are easier to cross than racial ones, with national barriers the easiest, and Black/White barriers the most difficult to transcend. Further, many scholars view intermarriage as a major indicator of the degree of assimilation of one ethnic or racial group into another (Gordon, 1964).

A New Colonial America
Initially, European men traveled throughout the American colonies, coming into contact with and intermarrying free Blacks, poor Whites, Native Americans, and people from other parts of the world. People believed that the new colonial America was a melting pot where people from different backgrounds would come together, intermarry, and have children who would be the “new Americans (Spickard, 1989).

In the history of interracial marriage in the U.S., there are many forms of interracial marriage. The first large group was that of Japanese, who were brought to help in the gold mines and in building the railroads; another significant combination was Jews and Christians, and also Black and White, Native American and White, Native American and Spanish, and Latino and White. But to understand interracial marriage in the U.S., we must first begin with White supremacy and its impact on racial attitudes and categories.

White Supremacy

The concept of White supremacy is at the heart of the view of race in the U.S. Shortly after the inception of this country, European racial thought overcame the egalitarian view of “new Americans” (Spickard, 1989). Only White Europeans were welcomed, with Native Americans, Mexicans, Africans, and Asians not welcome. This view soon became institutionalized within the immigration laws and laws regarding who could become U.S. citizens (Spickard, 1989). To be American one had to be Anglo-Saxon. Thus the U.S. Declaration of Independence’s call for equality was initially only for Anglo-Saxon men with property (Grant, 1916). The new country was officially viewed as a White, Northern European, and Protestant society. The notion of distinct and separate racial groups developed from this view. Thus, anyone not considered White Anglo Saxon (and later Nordic) was considered inferior: Catholics, Jews, Africans, Native Americans, Mexicans, and people from S. and E. Europe (Wardle & Cruz-Janzen, 2004).

Because the White race was considered superior to all other groups (including Jews and Catholics), it became critical to make sure that this racial group’s genetic stock was not contaminated through intermarriage. Thus early in colonial history, colonies began to enact stringent rules to maintain racial boundaries. Laws were passed to ban interracial relationships, because these would contaminate the superior White race with inferior genes (Welch, 2002). Anti-miscegenation and anti-cohabitation laws were passed in many states (Knepper, 1995). At the same time, many states broadened the definition of who is not White. In 1894, California and South Carolina ruled that the term White excluded Black, yellow, and other colors, with Black being defined as anyone who is not of White blood (Knepper, 1995).

The One Drop Rule and the Rule of Hypodescent

After the Civil War and the emancipation proclamation freeing African Americans, Jim Crow laws were created, especially in the South. These laws were designed to keep Blacks as second-class citizens, through rules that kept them from voting, having equal educational opportunity, and accessing public and private facilities, etc. While targeted to Blacks, this law applied to most non-Whites. Violation of Jim Crow laws produced an increasing number of court cases by people who did not believe they were subject to these laws – because they did not view themselves as Black (Knepper, 1995). These cases – including several U.S. Supreme Court decisions (which supported states’ rights) – upheld the one-drop rule – any amount of African blood made a person Black. Thus a White person cannot have any trace of any other blood (genes) anywhere in their background to be considered White.

The rule of hypodescent derived from the one-drop rule. This rule describes the way Americans classify race according to blood (Fish, 2002). It places racial identity on a continuum, from most preferred (White), through intermediate forms (i.e. Asian, Native American) to least prestigious (Black), and assigns the status of a child from parents of two groups to the race of lowest status, regardless of their physical appearance (Fish, 2002). Thus all offspring – and subsequent generations – of one White and one Black person are considered Black (Fish, 2002).


Laws as early as 1790 limited U.S. citizenship to White Europeans. Whites were legally defined as pure Caucasians (Knepper, 1995). A court case also declared that Hindus were not White. Laws were passed to prevent the flow of inferior races into the country – Asians, Pacific Islanders, and inferior Whites from S. and E. Europe (Banks, 2001). In a 1983 court decision, the one-drop rule was upheld. According to Spickard (1989), the law also applied to Asians and Latinos.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence initially included a section on the “horrors of the slave trade”, but this was removed by the southern colonies (McCullough, 2001). Slavery, of course, did not exist in the northern colonies. Equality at that time in U.S. history did not include any person of color, or any non-Northern Europeans. Many early leaders of the new country were concerned about the contamination of the pure, White, Protestant blood with inferior White and non-White mixtures, including the original Native American inhabitants (Grant, 1916).

At this time in U.S. and European history, it was argued that non-Anglo Saxons were inferior forms of life (Grant, 1916), and many justified this view by arguing that non-Anglo Saxons had no soul. However, the Pope declared that all people are equal in God’s eyes (Smedley, 2002). Thus the justification for White supremacy shifted to scientific support of the superiority of Anglo Saxons and Nordics, and the innate inferiority of everyone else. Scientists developed a variety of ways to prove this superiority – the IQ test being the most recognizable (Fish, 2002). By the 19th century, the belief in the inherent superiority of the White race was well established within European and U.S. social and scientific doctrine.

Unique Aspects of the U.S. View of Race

The U.S. census defines interracial marriage as marriage between people from two of the racial or ethnic groups on the census. However, in the past interracial marriage was a term used to cover interfaith marriages and marriages of people from different national backgrounds (i.e. Italian and German)(Spickard, 1989). For non-Americans to understand interracial marriage, they must first understand how the U.S. categorizes people racially (and how this differs from the way their country categorizes people) (Fish, 2002). The one-drop rule is particularly significant. For example, throughout the history of this country, dark-skinned Blacks have married light-skinned Backs in order to lighten their offspring (Spickard, 1989). In many other countries, such as S. Africa and Brazil, these light-skinned Blacks would not be considered Black, and thus their marriage would, in fact, be viewed as interracial. But in the U.S. this is not the case.

Passing for White

One of the results of the one-drop rule is the concept of passing for White. During the Jim Crow era, many Blacks with light skin and European features passed for White: getting jobs and living in neighborhoods reserved for Whites. Today academics and Black leaders view passing for White as a deceptive, dishonest and disloyal behavior (Fish, 2002).


Over the history of Africans in N. America, beginning with slavery, a hierarchy of color developed and was maintained. In slavery often the lighter-skinned slaves were the progeny of a slave and the slave owner. They were often given preferential treatment, and became known as house slaves. Darker-skinned slaves were known as field slaves (Spickard, 1989). This system generated resentment and jealousy from the field slaves. After emancipation, this color hierarchy continued, with the lighter-skinned class becoming the social and political leaders, known as the mulatto elite. These groups maintained their own social clubs, churches, neighborhoods, and even colleges (i.e. Howard University in Washington, DC). They were often segregated from dark-skinned Blacks, and imitated many of the social graces and institutions of Whites. Thus, there developed within the African American community a complex hierarchy based on skin color, facial features, and hair texture. According to Spickard (1989), these gradations were more important to women than to men. Today this hierarchical social system within the Black community is called colorism. A similar hierarchy exists within other communities of color.


The racial hierarchy, with Europeans at the top and Africans at the bottom, was the dominant scientific view of race in the U.S. during the 19th century, and was used to justify economic exploitation of whole groups of people – the labor of Africans, the taking of the land of Native Americas, and so on. Social behavior and physical appearance were justifications for this hierarchy and social class inequalities, as was Darwin’s theory of evolution and Spencer’s social Darwinism (Fish, 2002). This view was used as scientific and political justification to prevent marriages of Jews, Irish, Chinese, Italians, Portuguese, Catholics, Africans, Naïve Americans and Mexicans to Anglo-Saxons and Nordic Whites.

Genetic Inequalities

Francis Galton believed that genetic inequality was based on innate abilities, and he deeply believed that society should be involved in increasing the genetic pool of good people, and reducing that of inferior people (Welch, 2002). He established the Eugenics Laboratory at the University of London in 1907; in 1908 the Eugenics Society was created, and produced the journal, The Eugenics Review (Welch, 2002). In 1901, the Journal Biometrika was created by Galton and Pearson to study the statistical distribution of the procreation of the elite and of the genetically unfit (Welch, 2002). Since half the subscribers of Biometrika were Americans, the view of English eugenics soon became popular among U.S. scientists and intellectuals.

Pearson, a disciple of Galton, wrote extensively about the problems of immigrants coming into Britain, particularly that of Jews. He used his publication to convince British politicians to limit immigrants, as did Herbert Goddard in lobbying for a 1927 Immigration Act in the U.S. According to Goddard, IQ tests proved that Jews, Catholics, and immigrants from S. and E. European who entered the U.S. through Ellis Island were inferior, and thus contaminating the U.S. genetic stock (Chase, 1977).


During the 1890s, campaigns for the castration of the mentally retarded and criminals gained support in the U.S. In the early 1900s, 44 boys and girls were castrated in Kansas; in the South there was strong support by scientists, health professionals, and social reformers for the compulsory sterilization of the feeble-minded, criminals, alcoholics, and African Americans. During the 1920s, hundreds of morally delinquent and mentally retarded boys were sterilized in Alabama (Welch, 2002). This continued through 1951.

Throughout the 1920-50s, southern states enforced compulsory sterilization programs of mental degenerates, poor whites, and African Americans. According to Barry (2002), in Virginia, 7, 450 people were sterilized from 1924 through 1974 under eugenics policies. And, during World War II, when Americans, including African Americans, were attempting to defeat Hitler and the Nazi racists policies, eugenicists spent months collecting genetic information about residents of Shutesbury, Massachusetts, to determine what would happen when good pioneer stock (White) is mixed with bad immigrant stock (Portuguese fishermen)(Barry, 2002).

Black/White Intermarriage

In the United States, the increase over time of Black out-marriage has been much slower than other minority groups (i.e. Japanese and Native Americans). One can look at Black out-marriage in 5 periods: 1865-1920, 1920-1945, 1945-1960, 1960-1990, and post 1990. Over this time out-marriage has increased; however, still today most American Blacks marry other Blacks.

1865 – 1920

Shortly after the Civil War, there was an increase in Black men/White women marriages and cohabitation, especially in the south. This was due to the scarcity of White men (many killed in the war). In the 1880 census, there were 209 mixed marriages in New Orleans – 29 Black men to White women (Spickard, 1989). The most common pattern of intermarriage at this time was White men and Black women. Even though slavery had ended, White men in the South still had power over Black women, especially because many Blacks were in deep financial dept to White landowners. Thus White men could still easily have their way with Black women. Many White men had Black concubines and mixed-race children on the side. However, not all of these relationships were forced, and not all were negative. In some cases the White father acknowledged and supported his Black mistress and his mixed-race children (Spickard, 1989).

From 1890 to 1910, the U.S. census showed a “lightening” of the Black race. This was due to two factors, 1) increased interracial relationships (official and unofficial), and 2) mating preferences of Blacks toward lighter-skinned partners. Prior to the great migration north, just before WWI, there were very few Blacks in the North and West of the country. There was 10% intermarriage of Blacks in the North, including famous people like Frederick Douglass and John Durham, who married White women. Of those blacks who immigrated north as part of the great migration, many were light-skinned. Scholars suggest that many light-skinned Blacks passed as Whites and married Whites, thus increasing the number of interracial marriages (Spickard, 1989).

1920 – 1945

As the number of Blacks increased in the North, communities formed, which brought about White restrictions and Black unity, restricting Black out-marriage. Overall, the percentage of Black out-marriage in the North declined greatly. Most of the marriages were Black men married to White women. Between the two wars, Black intermarriage in the North continued to drop. While interracial relationships in the South tended to be illegal and informal, the relationships in the North and West usually resulted in marriage. Most of those involved in these marriages were middle-class people.

1945 -1960

Many changes in race relations occurred in the U.S. after WWII – the integration of the armed forces; the Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education; Blacks returning from Europe, and the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. In Washington, DC, the number of out-marriages rose 10 times from 1945 -1960. Much of the modest rise in Black out-marriage was a result of American servicemen bringing home wives and girlfriends from Europe and Asia. Many war brides suffered from harassment, both from Whites and Blacks. The media – especially the Black media – delighted in highlighting interracial unions, especially of famous Black people – politicians, athletes, and entertainers. One of the more curious examples was the marriage of Walter White, a Black leader (head of the NAACP) with white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes, to Poppy Cannon, a White women with hair, eyes, and skin several shades darker than that of her husband, Walter White (Spickard, 1989).


The Civil Rights movement produced radical changes in race relations in the U.S. Blacks became more visible in American society, and more attractive to educated, liberal Whites. Blacks began to attend White universities and colleges, and slowly integrated much of the workplace. And, in 1967, the Supreme Court decision, Loving v. Virginia, declared the remaining states’ anti-miscegenation laws to be unconstitutional. From 1960 to 1970, the number of Blacks who chose to marry non-Blacks nearly doubled over the previous decade, and continued to rise. By 1980, intermarriage constituted 5% of all Black men in the 1970-1980 decade; however the percentage was small compared to other minority groups, and the relationships were still mostly Black men married to White women (Spickard, 1989). This was partly due to Black women, who stood strongly against integration, and who were much more concerned than Black men with keeping Black communities intact (Spickard, 1989).

Many Blacks and Whites interacted socially during the Civil Rights activities in the South. In the 1970s, many all-White communities began to be integrated, and Blacks who grew up in middle-class neighborhoods and attended middle-class schools had more in common with middle-class White people, than they did with poor Blacks.

After 1990

Today much of the U.S. workplace is fully integrated, especially professional settings such as schools and universities. Blacks run cities, universities, and major corporations. Further, particularly in the West and SW, but also in North and SE, neighborhoods are becoming much more integrated. Aggressive implementation of equal opportunity and non-discrimination laws have resulted in more workplace and housing equality. Further, there has been an increased acceptance of interracial marriage, especially by Whites. In 1968, 72% of Americans disapproved of interracial marriage; in 1991, 48% approved, and 42% disapproved – a marked change (Gallup Poll, 1991). Here is not the place to debate the level of racial equality in U.S. society. But what is clear is that White and Black Americans interact on a daily basis in schools, universities, neighborhoods, shopping centers, and the workplace.

However, a curious split has occurred, with many common people (both White and Black) leading the way to support the rights of Americans to marry across racial lines, and intellectuals (heads of university ethnic studies programs, multicultural experts and writers, etc) who believe that interracial marriage is a conspiracy by the mainstream society to destroy individual cultural and ethnic groups, and to make every American part of mainstream America (Wardle, 2009). This latter view is a logical result of a diversity movement in the U.S. which focuses on the notion of “a salad bowl” as opposed to the “melting pot”, and which deeply believes that diversity is about empowering and institutionalizing distinct cultural groups with very clear boarders (Banks 2001; Nieto, 2004), and in finding ways to increase solidarity to and loyalty within these groups. The diversity movement emphasizes differences between these groups and their conflict with White America. It is a also a result of intellectuals who fear that with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the U.S., many now view U.S. society as colorblind (Spencer, 2010).

There is a trend towards higher rates of interracial marriages for Whites, Blacks, and American Indians. By 2000, about one out of seven Black men married a White woman; Black women are also increasingly marrying White men (Farley, 2010). From 1950 through 2008, there has been an increase of Black husbands married to a woman of a different race, to over 20%; in 2008, 14% of Black husbands under 30-years-of-age were married to someone of another race; 7% of Black wives under 30-years-of-age were married to someone of another race (Farley, 2010). One result of this increase of mixed marriage is an increase in mixed-race children. In the 2010 census, 9 million Americans identified as ‘two or more races’, an increase of 34% from the 2000. In 2008, 9.3% of children under age 18 lived in homes where married partners were of different races (Farley, 2010).

Changing Views on Race

Over the last 20 years, there has been a change in the way many people it the U.S. view race. Many interracial parents are raising their children as proudly multiracial, thus rejecting the one-drop rule, and labeling them “two or more races” on school and other government forms. In 2000, 48% of black-white children were raised and categorized as multiracial (Farley, 2010). Further, since the completion of the Human Genome Project, the biological view of race has been replaced by a social view. Many multiracial people (and parents) now believe this social view allows them to be seen as multiracial, and to call their children multiracial (Farley, 2010). Further, some adults who accepted the single-race view of identity now view themselves as multiracial. Finally, an increase in the number of immigrants with racial backgrounds that do not conform to the U.S. Census categories is deconstructing the traditional view of race in the U.S. (Wardle, 2011).


It is critically important for intellectuals from outside the U.S. studying race and racial relationships in the U.S. to deeply understand the unique history, politics and current realities of race within the U.S. These unique elements include a history of White supremacy, the eugenics movement and the social policies it produced, the creation and maintenance of the one-drop rule and the rule of hypodescent, and historical and legal issues surrounding interracial marriage. Further, observers of race in U.S. society must understand the relationship of states’ rights to federal authority and control. For example, the one-drop rule, eugenics policies, and laws against interracial marriage were all state laws, and not federal mandates, as was the legal right to own slaves. Today the ridged boundaries between racial groups, adherence to the one-drop rule, and the rule of hypodescent are all under siege. While academics, diversity experts, multicultural writers, and those who profess to care for the equality of minority groups still religiously adhere to the old paradigms about race, much of U.S. society – particularly the young – are rejecting these ridged, limiting and outmoded constructs.


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*This is the text of a presentation delivered at a conference at the Universidade Estadual Paulista, Araraquara. SP, Brazil, in June, 2011.

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