Law Prof Looks at Interracial Love

People never would think to associate Professor of Law Randall L. Kennedy with Julia Stiles. But Kennedy’s latest book Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity and Adoption uses Stiles’ character from last summer’s teen hit Save the Last Dance to illustrate the changing nature and perception of mixed race relationships in America.

Kennedy briefly sums up the plot: after the death of her mother, the end of her ballet career and her move from a quiet Midwestern town to Chicago’s South Side, there’s reason to think Sara (Stiles) might be jaded. It takes her friendship with Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), and their mutual passion for dance, for Sara to release her sorrow and again pursue her dreams as a ballerina. In the end, they live happily ever, better and more worldly people for their love.

This was the storyline countless teenage girls and their unenthusiastic dates focused on when they saw Save the Last Dance in 2001. American audiences were hardly troubled by the fact that Derek was black and Sarah was white—the movie grossed $90.1 million, placing it in the top 25 money-makers of its year, and its lead actors won Best Kiss at the MTV Movie Awards.

And yet, only forty years ago, the film would have been banned from many theaters; Derek and Sarah’s relationship would have been illegal in many states.

Drawing on historical data, legal cases, and the personal stories of multiracial couples past and present, Kennedy argues that interracial relationships have played a larger role in history than many realize.

“Interracial intimacy and its many ramifications are far more central to American life than many people appreciate or are willing to acknowledge,” Kennedy writes in the book’s introduction.

Kennedy gives a thorough historical account of interracial intimacy, from the era of slavery through Reconstruction and Jim Crow America to the present day.

Especially interesting is Kennedy’s discussion of the influence different perceptions of interracial relationships have had on political history. Thomas Jefferson’s enemies called the president’s character into question with rumors that Jefferson sired several children with his slave Sally Hemings, while Abraham Lincoln’s opponents coined the term “miscegenation” during the 1864 campaign, seeking to turn public opinion against Lincoln by suggesting that the Republican party condoned interracial marriage.

The author of the controversial Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word and Race, Crime, and the Law, Kennedy has been at Harvard Law School since 1986. He attended Princeton as an undergraduate and after a year studying in England as a Rhodes Scholar, moved to New Haven to attend Yale Law.

He also served a judicial clerkship with the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and was appointed to a tenured position at the Harvard Law School by his mid-30s. Around Harkness Commons, he’s known for his contrarian teaching style, as he cherishes the devil’s advocate and argues with obvious glee.

Although Kennedy is considered a moderate by his colleagues, aspects of Interracial Relations will likely prove controversial among his wider readership.

His analysis of relationships during slavery and particularly inferences that some slave/master relationships were consensual and even romantic may ignite discussion and debate.

Kennedy points out that his chapter on “passing” is “somewhat sympathetic” to blacks who identify themselves as white. “Some will regard my viewpoint with contempt,” says Kennedy. “Anger should be directed at the social system, not at the people trying to escape oppression.”

As might be expected of a prominent law professor, Kennedy’s sharp analysis of legal cases and the changing face of the law in respect to interracial relations forms the basis of his arguments.

“A change in the law is indicative of changing attitudes in society,” Kennedy says. “Political, economic, cultural, intellectual forces are all mirrored by changes in the law.”

The contrast between an adoption case in 1952, in which a black couple was not permitted to adopt a mixed race child under Louisiana law, and the 1990 ruling by an Illinois court that “race should presumptively play no role in determining custody arrangements,” is a sharp one.

But, as Kennedy says in Interracial Intimacies, equality under the law does not mean that society treats interracial relationships without considering race.

Social workers tend to place children with couples of the same race. Many mixed race couples meet resistance or at least doubtful glances from friends and relatives. Even in the classroom, students who see themselves as race-blind may waver, on further examination.

Kennedy recalls a discussion in which a student condemned racial discrimination of all forms. Kennedy had asked the student if he would criticize a friend for specifying a mate of a certain race in a personal ad. The class, which had previously been engaged in a lively debate, suddenly became quiet and thoughtful.

“I don’t pretend to have it all figured out,” Kennedy says. “Although the laws have changed and the past forty years have seen an uptick in the amount of racial relationships, custom is particularly resistant to change.”

In a society that publicly criticizes racism, even as it is privately practiced, interracial relationships still stir up controversy—one doesn’t need to look further than the O.J. Simpson trial to see the social anxieties that commonly surround interracial sex.

Nevertheless, Kennedy says, “People are more used to interracial relationships, more accepting.”

“There is still certainly opposition and suspicion, but I think that many, many Americans accept interracial relations the same way they accept intraracial relations.”

—Staff writer Kristi L. Jobson can be reached at jobson@fas.harvard.edu.

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