Book Review: Peggy Pascoe's "What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America"

By Doctor Comrade

Pascoe, Peggy. What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America deftly analyzes and criticizes the socio-legal frameworks that designed, propagated, and enforced anti-miscegenation laws in the United States from the colonial period until the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision that ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. Working within the paradigm of critical race theory, Pascoe identifies both the social discourses and juridical decrees that legitimized and reinforced white supremacy through a dual system of racial categorization and social constructions of gender and race. Pascoe argues that miscegenation laws and their enduring power relied on three fictions: miscegenation laws were not discriminatory because they applied equally to all races; racial purity could and should be protected; and race exists objectively and can be measured.[1] Holding to these three themes, Pascoe illustrates how miscegenation laws were the foundation of larger racial projects of white supremacy and racial purity.[2]

What Comes Naturally is an extension of Pascoe’s intellectual project of deconstructing race and gender in American history. While pursuing her PhD at Stanford University, her advisor was Estelle Freedman, a groundbreaking women’s historian and co-founder of Stanford’s Feminist Studies program.[3] Pascoe published a revised version of her dissertation entitled Relations of Rescue: The Search for Female Moral Authority in the American West, 1874-1939, which analyzed how women who established missionary rescue homes for vulnerable women in the American West both established their own moral authority while also reinforcing existing patriarchal and racialized forms of power.[4] Her second book, What Comes Naturally, fits within a similar context by dissecting the intersections of race and gender in terms of marriage, the law, and social norms.

The book is divided into four parts. Part I,  “Miscegenation Law and Constitutional Equality,” traces the lineage of anti-miscegenation laws and how they came to be constitutionally accepted. Miscegenation laws, and specifically laws that banned Africans from having sexual encounters with Whites, came from America’s system of slavery.[5] These laws specifically targeted sexual acts and the preservation of white women, rather than marriage and family. However, according to Pascoe, their effect was to establish racial divisions, even in “free” states. Although Reconstruction-era legislatures repealed many miscegenation laws, post-1877 legislatures passed new regulations that criminalized interracial marriage, and judicial decisions in criminal cases allowed state governments to side-step federal civil rights laws.[6] Anti-miscegenation forces marshaled the rhetoric of religion, science, history, and democracy to tailor assertions about the natural separation of the races, leading to judicial consensus against interracial marriage; in Pascoe’s analysis, anti-miscegenation laws became “Constitutionally assured and [their] naturalness assumed.”[7]

In Part II, “Miscegenation Law and Race Classification,” Pascoe argues that miscegenation laws attempted to reify racial differences through legislative identification of multiple races, judicial proceedings, and bureaucratic functions. Western states passed miscegenation laws that extended prohibitions against Whites marrying “colored” people, including Mexicans, Native Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Kanakas (Hawaiians), Malays, and Mongolians, in addition to Blacks.[8] These developments mirrored the rise of the anti-Chinese movement in the second half of the nineteenth century as well as the Progressive mission of protecting women from unsavory and inferior races. By gendering the threat to marriage, miscegenation opponents used “the race-and-gender pairing of White women with non-White men as lightning rods for the entire social order,” in essence rationalizing systemic racism by appealing to the symbolic status of white women.[9] However, rigidly defining racial categories was nearly impossible because “visual scrutiny” was clearly insufficient, leading to various blood percentage definitions and “one drop rules” that determined any person with “colored” blood in them was non-white.[10] Pascoe also discusses the role of bureaucrats in marriage licensing departments who exerted substantial power over interracial couples. Marriage licenses became standard practice for all couples by 1900 and served as “society’s first line of defense against unwanted marriages.”[11] By showing the often-decisive role played by low-level bureaucrats, Pascoe further underscores the ways the law fundamentally shaped social norms.

Part III, “Miscegenation Law and Its Opponents,” details the struggles of opponents to overturn miscegenation laws. Even advocacy and civil rights groups like the NAACP were hesitant to challenge miscegenation laws. Not only did the NAACP adopt conventional notions of sex and gender, but they also believed that challenging anti-miscegenation laws would endanger their anti-segregation coalitions.[12] In 1948, the California Supreme Court ruled that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional, which opened the door for arguments that interracial marriage was natural and trumped the state’s interest in preserving racial purity.[13] Eventually, the US Supreme Court heard the case of Loving v. Virginia in 1967, and overturned miscegenation laws on the basis that they denied a “fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications.”[14]

Part IV, “The Politics of Colorblindness,” constitutes a considerable shift from Pascoe’s narrative and comprises a critique of the liberal virtue of colorblindness. Pascoe argues that the Loving case has been used to push forward a revisionist history that obfuscates the role of race in American history by repositioning the decision as the beginning of a non-racial regime of power.[15] Pascoe claims that the Loving decision fundamentally altered Americans’ perception of history and erased the ugly stain of anti-miscegenation laws from their consciousness, allowing them to believe that the government had always protected civil rights and racial equality.[16] The “forgetting” of anti-miscegenation laws allowed politically diverse movements to appropriate Loving as a tool to fight other forms of “discrimination,” including reverse racism against whites in affirmative action.[17] In that sense, Pascoe criticizes the ideal of colorblindness as a new form of historical revisionism that seeks to eradicate racial classifications in order to benefit historically privileged (white) people by forgetting the importance of historically-constructed race and the legacies of white supremacy.[18] Essentially, equality cannot be taken for granted as a natural condition of a colorblind regime because what seems to come naturally often contains oppression of what is deemed unnatural.[19]

What Comes Naturally is an interdisciplinary tour de force that combines literary theory, critical race theory, political history, social history, and women’s history into a convincing analysis of post-Civil War racial history in America. Where economic and political segregation have dominated the discourse on racial oppression, Pascoe persuasively opens the field for discussions of what roles marriage, the family, womanhood, and intersectional oppression played in white supremacy. A major strength of the book is its breadth of sources, including court opinions, legislators’ speeches, newspaper editorials, and judicial eyewitness testimony that all seem to demonstrate how crucial preventing miscegenation was to the white supremacists’ worldviews. Perhaps more importantly is how Pascoe broadens discussions of miscegenation beyond the American Southeast and the white/black dichotomy by including analysis of legislation and legal debates in the American West.[20] By discussing disputes over Chinese, Japanese, Filipino/a, and Mexican people, she significantly strengthens her arguments about racial categorization and the incoherence of anti-miscegenation beliefs. Her observation about the proliferation of marriage-racial categories in the West underscores her argument that not only was race constructed in order to benefit the white majority, but that marriage was a cornerstone of racial policy and ideology.

However, Pascoe’s selection of sources also complicates her argument. Throughout the book, she tended to choose court cases that reinforced her argument while also only briefly mentioning victories for opponents of miscegenation law. Her argument could have been stronger if she had analyzed why some courts or agencies allowed some marriages to occur and not others, like in Los Angeles when Filipinos were briefly allowed to marry white women because the clerks thought they were “just as good” as whites.[21] Explaining the formation of racial attitudes in conjunction with legislative or judicial actions would support her contention that laws shape social norms.

Another potential weakness in this work is Pascoe’s anachronistic view of racism. The tone with which she describes the racist attitudes of Whites is often condescending and condemnatory, and use of terms like “white supremacist” cannot help but conjure our contemporary notions of the Ku Klux Klan and lynch mobs. However, if “race” is a constructed and historically contingent category, then “racism” must be as well. Most, if not all, of the antagonists in What Comes Naturally were culturally steeped in racism, and separation of the races did seem natural and correct to them. This is not to excuse their actions or deprive them of historical agency, but a more nuanced approach to what modern-day historians call “racism” should be adopted in order to contextualize decisions made in the past.

What Comes Naturally remains a seminal work in American racial history and critical race theory. Pascoe succeeds in not only exposing the historiographic holes in racial history, she also fills them to a large extent. Furthermore, this book helps define the foundations of later studies on marriage, multiracial America, and peripheral presences in history.

[1] 6–7.
[2] 6.
[3] Estelle Freedman, “Peggy Pascoe: In Memoriam,” Perspectives on History, November 2010.
[4] Peggy Pascoe, Relations of Rescue: The Search for Female Moral Authority in the American West, 1874-1939 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
[5] Pascoe, What Comes Naturally, 20.
[6] 50.
[7] 74.
[8] 77.
[9] 86.
[10] 112–116.
[11] 138.
[12] 186, 204.
[13] 206.
[14] 284.
[15] 306.
[16] 291.
[17] 301.
[18] 303.
[19] 314.
[20] Thomas J. Davis, “What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America by Peggy Pascoe,” Law and History Review 28, no. 2 (May 2010): 557.
[21] Pascoe, What Comes Naturally, 132.