By Julie Novkov. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008. 368pp. Cloth. $75.00. ISBN: 9780472098859. Paperback. $26.00. ISBN: 9780472068852.

Reviewed by Claire E. Rasmussen, Department of Political Science, University of Delaware. Email: cerasmus [at] udel.edu.


Julie Novkov’s RACIAL UNION: LAW, INTIMACY, AND THE WHITE STATE IN ALABAMA, 1865-1954 is a compelling narrative about the regulation of interracial intimacy in the state of Alabama, primarily using appellate court rulings. The text provides a careful analysis of the case law to provide a snapshot of race relations in Alabama during the postbellum period. The book will be of much interest to scholars of the intersection of race and law in the United States and provides a window into the rapidly changing cultural constructions of race during this period of time. Novkov’s analysis will also be illuminating for scholars of gender and sexuality, as the text traces the variety of ways that race, gender, and sexuality intersected to produce differing and sometimes surprising legal outcomes. Novkov’s emphasis on the regulation of interracial intimacy highlights the legitimating influence of family law that defines the parameters of acceptable intimate relationships. Novkov uses this insight to demonstrate the ways that white supremacy was crucial in state development and to highlight the contemporary importance of this history including the residue of institutionalized racism and comparisons between bans on interracial marriage and anti-same sex marriage laws.

RACIAL UNION comes on the heels of the publication of several important texts examining the history of racialized legal structures in the United States. The text differs from others, however, in limiting the scope of the analysis to the regulation of interracial intimacy (laws not only against marriage but also regulating adultery, fornication, rape and property) and to an assessment of state rather than national developments. The limited scope enables a nuanced analysis of the development of legal practices in Alabama relative to local politics, as well as unpacking the complexities of race, class, gender, and sexuality within a particular context. Even further, the historical entrenchment of unequal race relations in Alabama calls for an understanding of the ways that white supremacy has influenced legal development. Novkov argues: “Supremacy was a political doctrine, grounded politically on racist beliefs but also reflecting a particular view of political power and the state’s obligations. Rather than being a simple reflection of racist attitudes, supremacy was emerging in these years as a system for the organization and articulation of governance” (p.72).

The analysis at the state level illuminates the ways that whiteness of citizenship was entrenched within law, culture, and politics in Alabama, using the “normal” family as the baseline for full [*740] membership in the political community. Further, while this period of time was tumultuous in terms of the meaning and institutionalization of race, changes in power relations were often motivated by tensions within the white supremacist community, rather than between white supremacists and those who opposed the structure of white power. Indeed, changes in the law were often motivated by the power struggles within the white community and, later, in power struggles playing on and against national politics. Novkov generates a narrative about race in America through reading state-level cases challenging the regulation of interracial intimacy that demonstrates just how deeply entrenched white supremacy was and, perhaps, continues to be.

The focus on the regulation of interracial intimacy is based upon an argument that white supremacy is in large part motivated by a desire to privilege the white family as the model of appropriate citizenship. Interracial intimacy was a challenge to the family and thus required not only the outright ban on interracial marriage but also the regulation of ongoing relationships (e.g., with restrictions on fornication and adultery). Miscegenation (sexual relations between the races) was threatening not only because of the potential for interracial children but also because it threatened the appropriate racial hierarchy that maintained a strict social order that privileged white citizenship. The more closely these relationships resembled the appropriate white family, the more they were regulated. As Novkov argues, “adultery and fornication were . . . violations of the legitimate family. The courts did not look at the concrete violations to family . . . but rather the violation against the concept of family” (p.103). Thus, an entire legal edifice was built to maintain the heterosexual white family as the privileged form of citizenship.

Using an exhaustive array of case materials, Novkov examines the bases for challenges to convictions to illuminate the contingent grounds on which white supremacy was based. Two of the most interesting include demonstrating the ongoing nature of the sexual relationship and demonstrating the race of the accused parties. In the latter cases, for example, the lack of ongoing relationship might be policed less stringently because the illicit sexual relationship was considered criminal but not as threatening as the attempt to establish a relationship similar to the family. As a consequence, adultery and fornication might be punished more severely than prostitution because the former relationships pose a greater threat to the traditional family. Cases often considered the social status of the woman, demonstrating the intersection of gender and race in which interracial intimacy laws were used to police the behavior of women, considering her credibility and culpability according to very specific gender and race-based rules.

Novkov also traces the very interesting shifts in the understanding of race by looking at cases in which defendants raised questions about the racial composition of the accused parties, requiring that the state define race for the purposes of policing interracial intimacy. The rise of scientific racism placed greater emphasis on “blood,” which on the one hand heightened the importance of regulating interracial [*741] intimacy to avoid the “contamination” of white blood, but, on the other, also made demonstrating race more difficult since science could not provide definitive evidence of race in cases of racial ambiguity. Consequently, the case history reveals tension between the desire to appear objective and scientific and the reliance upon questionable testimony about appearance and social networks to attempt to define one’s racial makeup.

While cultural norms of gender and social interpretations of race placed an important role in the development of law, so too did struggles within the white supremacist community. Power struggles between white elites, who often populated the legal system, and more unruly cultural forces like the KKK led to a desire to make the legal system conform to expectations of elites. Believing their racism to be motivated by rational understandings of racial order rather than by irrational animus, they sought to cleanse the legal system of overt and hate-filled expressions of racism. Later, a desire to insulate racist traditions against national (and international) attention and criticism, generated by events like the nomination of former KKK member Hugo Black to the U.S. Supreme Court, made elites even more determined to make institutionalized racism appear to be an objective and rational system. Thus the courts placed a great deal of emphasis on rules of evidence and obedience to the rule of law. Thus what appear to be victories against white supremacy – such as throwing out cases in which prosecutors made racially inflammatory statements –actually further entrench the racialized structure under cover of the rule of law.

One of the more fascinating elements examined in Chapter Six is the consequence of property laws between 1914-44. In these cases the court grapples with the problem of maintaining white male autonomy, particularly in the distribution of property, even when he left property to his non-white (and thus non-institutionalized) family. Black litigants often prevailed because of white supremacy and of a desire to protect the privilege of white males to acquire and distribute their own property (p.217).

Novkov begins her text with the narrative of the November 2000 vote in Alabama to repeal the constitutional ban on interracial marriage. While the ban appears to be the relic of an ugly but long past history of racial exclusion, 40 percent of Alabamans voted to retain the provision. The anecdote demonstrates the ways that racial hierarchy has been deeply entrenched in American law and culture, placing these issues firmly in the present. She chooses to close the text with a discussion of the ways that the comparisons between interracial marriage and same-sex marriage are both valuable and obfuscating. She correctly identifies that both bans rely upon privileging the family as a core location of citizenship but notes that we must also be attentive to the differences between white supremacy as a system that intersects with sexuality and heterosexism that has a different history and different forms of institutionalization. The analogy, while emotionally powerful, may not be entirely historically or, ultimately, politically useful.

Novkov’s brief discussion of same-sex marriage raised some questions about [*742] the connection between the normative family, citizenship, and politics that remain unanswered and could warrant further discussion. The political coalition that fell under the umbrella of white supremacy was complex and often reflected class tensions within Alabama. The enforcement of interracial intimacy laws themselves were also entangled with class relationships, as the law sought to retain proper hierarchies of race, gender, and class, meaning that even amongst whites the laws were unevenly enforced. The focus on primarily legal materials leaves out the stories of struggles amongst non-elite whites and their position relative to the legal and cultural formation of race. This issue seems relevant in light of the discussion of same-sex marriage in understanding the continued privileged status of the white heterosexual family and the realignment of party politics in the South generally and Alabama in particular. Does this history illuminate anything about the new conservative alliance that unites economic and cultural conservatives against same-sex marriage but also draws upon some of the residue of white supremacy in the South with an anti-crime platform, opposition to welfare, and the rhetoric of family values? If the preservation of the white family helped maintain the system of white privilege, who benefits from the regulation of same-sex intimacy, and does there continue to be overlap in these political coalitions, their motivations, and their justifications?

RACIAL UNION is a valuable text for scholars of race in America and builds upon and modifies the studies of American law often focusing on the national context. As Novkov argues, the dynamism of race relations requires examinations at a variety of scales in order to see the complexity of struggles within and against white supremacy. The case narratives are carefully presented and analyzed.

In addition, RACIAL UNION is also an important contribution to the historical study of sexuality and gender in the American context. The text highlights the ways that the family has been seen as a gateway to citizenship, demonstrating that contemporary debates over family values are neither new nor inconsequential. Privileging white, heterosexual families has operated in a variety of ways to exclude certain groups from full participation. Novkov’s analysis provides a valuable supplement to many of the historical studies of marriage law published in the last decade that, like the studies of race, tend to look primarily at the national level. The book presents complex ideas in a format that would also be accessible to graduate students and upper-level undergraduates.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Claire E. Rasmussen.