Kevin Noble Maillard is a professor at Syracuse University and co-editor of Loving v. Virginia in a Post-Racial World: Rethinking Race, Sex, and Marriage. This essay is adapted from the piece “Playing the Interracial Card,” New York Times, July 15, 2012.
Why would an interracial relationship become a dangerous political liaison? For most people, sex and relationships are private actions, but for public figures, intimate life turns into news. Add race to the mix, and it raises eyebrows. Obama had a white girlfriend in college? Sarah Palin may or may not have dated a black athlete? There are European royals of black and Asian descent? (Lichtenstein and Denmark.) At minimum, such pairings are imaginatively interesting. But why does it matter?
Theoretically, there is no legal barrier. In 1967, in Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court made interracial marriage legally available in all states. But a transformative case does not automatically transform personal opinion. Some jurisdictions did not comply with the ruling. By popular vote, South Carolina and Alabama were the last states to overturn their prohibitions in 1998 and 2000. Even though any such law would be unenforceable, 40% of Alabamians voted to retain the statute in the state constitution.
Freedom of association, on an intimate level, doesn’t apply for political figures. When it comes to exposing candidate faults, race is a familiar boost of indignation. Former Senator Bob Bennett, a Republican from Utah, understands this. In 1999, he publicly identified the two things that might have prevented George W. Bush’s nomination on the Republican ticket. The only obstacles, Bennett declared, would be if Bush “steps in front of a bus or some woman comes forward, let’s say some black woman, with an illegitimate child that he fathered.”
Bennett’s obtuse expression merits a lifetime subscription to Essence magazine. He got it ridiculously wrong by blaming black women and public transportation for the downfall of public figures. But he also got it so perversely right by articulating the persistent and antiquated fears that have long been, legally speaking, void.
Miscegenation is the original race card. Accusations have affected all political persuasions and races, to a point where the fixation becomes the candidate’s defining element. Thomas Jefferson is certainly not alone in the accusations against him. Abraham Lincoln’s opponents published a campaign cartoon, “The Miscegenation Ball,” that lampooned an interracial regime where white men and black women freely dance, flirt and carouse. And Strom Thurmond, who infamously denounced integration of homes, schools and pools, was ultimately revealed to have a mixed pool of his own.
The interracial card also affects nonscandalous and nonsecret relationships in politics, even as interracial marriage has increased almost 30% in the past 10 years. Very few public figures in American history have married a person of another race, which speaks to a curious relationship between race mixture and electability. The interracial marriages of Senator Edward Brooke, Senator Phil Gramm and Gov. Nikki Haley are atypical. While interracial marriage remains relatively rare, at 8.4% of all marriages, in the political realm it is practically shunned.
In America, where elections are often a referendum on the character of a candidate, we vote not only for individuals, but also for the entire landscapes in which they live and love. We consider their ideologies, their personality, their pasts and their relationships. Our nation has liberally appropriated the mantra that race is less important than the content of a candidate’s character. To realize its true intention without weakening its mythical force, it must also extend to the color of their company’s skin.