Race, Sex, and Love

Tiger Woods, possibly the world's best-known athlete, resists being called a "black" golfer. He coined the term "Cablinasian" (Caucasian, black, Indian, Asian) to identify his race, and used it on the Oprah Winfrey television show after winning the 1997 Masters tournament. Although Woods's ancestry may be unusually diverse, his heritage is far less exceptional than his golfing skill, as professor of law Randall Kennedy makes clear in his new book, Interracial Intimacies (Pantheon). Five years in the making, the volume examines the history, lore, and especially the legalities, primarily in the United States, surrounding sexual, marital, and familial relationships among people of different races.

Racially mixed relationships are becoming more common. In the United States there are 1.5 million cross-racial marriages, a figure that has doubled about every decade. Forty percent of Asian Americans have married whites in recent years, as have 6 percent of blacks. "The general situation for people involved in interracial intimacies has never been better," Kennedy writes. Most legal obstacles to pairing across races have been struck down, and Kennedy believes that even "public opinion now permits interracial intimacies to be pursued and enjoyed with unparalleled levels of freedom, security, and support."

The rarest and most charged form of racial intermingling—at least in this country—is the black-white relationship. Although historically 42 states passed antimiscegenation laws, the Supreme Court made such statutes unenforceable in 1967. Nonetheless, "There is still litigation over the place of race in family formation," Kennedy says. What happens, for example, when a white single mother marries a black man, and her ex-husband, the father of her child, objects—in court? In just such a case in Florida, in 1982, a judge took custody of the child away from the mother and awarded it to the ex-husband. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturned the ruling, the mother did not regain custody of her daughter, because by that time the father had moved to Texas and obtained a restraining order that prevented her from taking custody. The same Florida judge who had been overruled allowed the transfer of jurisdiction to Texas.

Kennedy's research abounds with such cases, which provoke deep reflection on the intersections of race, sex, marriage, and family life. Consider the practice of racially matching adoptive parents with the children they adopt. "Originally, the main impulse behind race matching in adoption was a white-supremacist, segregationist impulse," Kennedy says. Yet, few states banned cross-racial adoption, "because it was thought to be beyond discussion—it was so obviously wrong that there was no need for a law."

Since the 1970s, however, interracial adoption has grown—along with fierce controversy about the practice. The National Association of Black Social Workers, composed largely of child-welfare officials, has opposed interracial adoption for more than three decades, asserting that black children "belong" with black parents. "Some say that children in cross-racial adoptions don't have a good sense of their racial identity," Kennedy says. "Tell me: what, exactly, is a 'good sense' of racial identity? That race means a lot to them? That they have a preference for people of their own color? What of those who say, 'My racial identity is human?'"

Parentless children, Kennedy argues, "ought to be placed in the hands of adults who want to raise them—as quickly as possible, without regard to race." He challenges "ideologues who suggest that racially homogeneous families are preferable to racially diverse families. What's wrong with the rainbow family? Why not see it as an opportunity? 'I look different from you'—that's a chance to talk about all sorts of things. What about white families whose children have eyes of a different color from their parents? We don't attach a lot of significance to eye color, the way we do with skin."

Yet Kennedy is neutral on the question of amalgamation—the view, advanced by many, including historian Will Durant and Harvard's Beneficial professor of law, Charles Fried, that biological intermingling will eventually dissolve the race problem. "I'm not a biological determinist," Kennedy declares. "If, in 50 years time, most whites still marry other whites and most blacks still marry other blacks, can we still have a racially decent society? Sure!"

The topic of interracial intimacies also evokes Kennedy's broader philosophy of individual freedom. Ultimately, like Tiger Woods, he favors racial self-identification: "People should be able to determine for themselves what their race is." He backs racial mobility as well, and his book includes a chapter on "passing." Regarding intimate relationships, "I want individuals to be able to express themselves and do what they want," he says. "I'm attacking customs of racial separateness enforced by the government and those imposed by groups—white, black, or anybody else. Affection should be able to display itself free of wrongful impediments, including racial ones. My most basic position is, I'm for love—put me in the love camp."

~ Craig Lambert

Randall Kennedy e-mail address: rkennedy@law.harvard.edu          

Read more articles by Craig Lambert

You might also like

Teaching Nutrition in Medical Education

Will Harvard Medical School return nutrition instruction to pre-eminence?

Animal (Code) Cracker

After listening to leviathans, an undergraduate comes to conservation.  

Breaking Bread

Alexander Heffner ’12 plumbs the state of democracy.

Most popular

Prepare for AI Hackers

Human systems of all kinds may soon be vulnerable to subversion by artificial intelligence.

The Missing Middle

How overheated political attention warps campus life

Teaching Nutrition in Medical Education

Will Harvard Medical School return nutrition instruction to pre-eminence?

More to explore

Architect Kimberly Dowdell is Changing Her Profession

Kimberly Dowdell influences her profession—and the built environment.

How Schizophrenia Resembles the Aging Brain

The search for schizophrenia’s biological basis reveals an unexpected link to cellular changes seen in aging brains.

Harvard Researchers on Speaking to Whales

Project CETI’s pioneering effort to unlock the language of sperm whales