by Peggy Pascoe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 416pp. Hardback. $34.95/£18.99. ISBN: 9780195094633.

Reviewed by Mark Kessler, Department of History and Government, Texas Woman’s University, email: MKessler [at] twu.edu.


In this highly original and important book, Peggy Pascoe describes and analyzes three centuries of laws in the United States prohibiting interracial marriages and sexual relations. In perhaps the most comprehensive and systematic study of legal marriage and sex prohibitions to date, Pascoe argues that these laws were central ideological tools used in constituting and reproducing white supremacy in the United States. Placing her study in its broadest context, she argues that examining the rise and decline of these laws “provides a locus for studying the history of race in America” (p.2). Pascoe’s study demonstrates how historical research, combined with critical cultural theory and analysis, may shed new light on significant questions regarding the power of law and legal interpretation in constructing and reconstructing social reality.

Throughout this work, the writing is admirably accessible, while the analyses and arguments are deeply nuanced. Pascoe begins many of the eleven chapters with stories describing the people and circumstances involved in miscegenation cases throughout history. These stories are carefully selected to show the great variation in characteristics of participants, laws, and regions of the country in which the cases arose, and to help address the broader questions of nation-building and nation-formation that emerge from this study. Pascoe uses these very human stories, along with landmark appellate court decisions and local legal practices, to explore the many and varied ways in which social and political relations based on race, gender, and sexuality illuminate the rise and fall of miscegenation law in the United States.

Pascoe’s narrative begins in the Reconstruction era, when the term “miscegenation” was first invented and applied to interracial marriage and sex. Her discussion focuses on the ways in which judges, legislators, and lawyers employed notions of what is “natural” and “unnatural” in conventional cultural discourses about sex, gender, and sexuality to create and apply laws prohibiting interracial marriage and sex. Such laws emerged first in the South and North and typically applied exclusively to relations between those categorized racially as “white” and as “black.”

Pascoe’s narrative moves from southern and northern regions to a comparison with bans on interracial marriage and sex in western states. The analysis of laws and their implementation in the west adds importantly to scholarship on miscegenation laws by focusing on interracial marriage and sex bans between those racially identified as “white” and many other categories of racial “others,” such as Japanese, [*219] Chinese, Filipinos, and American Indians. In her close readings of laws and legal cases, and her attention to the multiple social categories of difference represented by participants in these cases, Pascoe brilliantly highlights the multiracial dimensions of white supremacy, along with patterns of interpretation and implementation that underscore how ideologies of male supremacy and heteronormativity work together in individual cases to explain outcomes and legal rationales.

Pascoe’s research and analysis goes beyond judges, lawyers, and legislators to examine the constitutive work accomplished by local bureaucratic officials in marriage license bureaus who had to make decisions on whether two people could marry, given prohibitions on interracial marriages. These clerks determined if particular applicants for marriage licenses violated miscegenation laws by falling into prohibited categories or, alternatively, were “white” and thus could be legally married. In making such complex determinations, local clerks engaged in significant ideological work, making and remaking notions of racial difference that had an important impact on the lives of many people. In this way these clerks engaged in cultural practices similar to the judges studied by Haney López (1997), judges who rendered decisions in concrete cases regarding whether particular individuals were “white” for purposes of citizenship at a time when citizenship rights applied only to those classified as “white.”

In three chapters, Pascoe tells a fascinating story of the legal campaign to overturn miscegenation laws. The campaign was originally framed by the NAACP in the early twentieth century by constructing arguments challenging conventional notions of the “nature” of race that took the form of black inferiority, while reinforcing traditional ideas about the “nature” of gender that relied on the need to “protect women.” Working for change within a culture shaped by white and male supremacy, the NAACP was careful at first not to endorse the desirability of interracial marriage. Focusing on how legal arguments and cultural discourses evolved and helped shape legal decisions as the campaign proceeded and how legal decisions in turn helped shape and reshape evolving cultural discourses and legal argumentation, Pascoe provides close and insightful readings of major landmark decisions, such as PACE v. ALABAMA (1883), MCLAUGHLIN v. FLORIDA (1964) and LOVING v. VIRGINIA (1967), and the environment in which they were decided. Pascoe views LOVING as significant not only for declaring miscegenation laws unconstitutional, but also for promoting an ideology of “colorblindness” as racial equality, a concept she views as overly simplistic and in some ways responsible for reproducing unequal relations of power and privilege, a critique with parallels in strands of critical race theory (e.g., Crenshaw, et al., 1995 ). LOVING, then, according to Pascoe, leaves a complex and contradictory legacy, both challenging and reinforcing social, political, and racial inequality.

WHAT COMES NATURALLY is an outstanding work of politically engaged research conducted by a creative and gifted scholar. The research and analysis combine close and convincing readings of laws, court decisions, and other documentary evidence with a compelling account of the cultural discourses [*220] shaping law and legal practices and the ways in which such practices influenced broader cultural ideals. The multiple evidentiary sources are brought together in a powerful narrative revealing the effectiveness of law as a cultural practice “making race,” in the phrase used by Pascoe, as well as “gender” and “sexuality.” Further, Pascoe’s analysis illustrates how intersecting roles of race, gender, and sexuality associated with parties to concrete cases help to explain seemingly inconsistent judicial decisions. Moreover, this study demonstrates the analytical potential of exploring issues of law, difference, and social justice in ways that combine traditional historiography, critical cultural studies, and critical race theory.

The skillful use of these diverse approaches, and the self conscious attention to law as cultural practice, enhances the contemporary political significance of the study’s major findings and interpretations regarding marriage. As Pascoe puts it: “When societies decide who can and who can’t legally marry, they determine who is and isn’t really part of the family. These inclusions and exclusions take place at such an intimate level that they shape what seems natural and, in turn, what is stigmatized as unnatural” (p.2). Variations on the social and political discourses that Pascoe identifies and analyzes continue to shape the question of who is engaged in natural relations that invite inclusion in the “family” and, conversely, who is stigmatized as engaged in unnatural relations that render them unworthy of family membership. Pascoe’s provocative volume provides substantive guidance regarding the many challenges involved in resisting conventional, deeply embedded cultural understandings of interpersonal relations such as marriage. As important, this book is an inspiration to those committed to expanding the “family” to include all who wish to join.

Crenshaw, Kimberle, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas. 1995. CRITICAL RACE THEORY: KEY WRITINGS THAT FORMED THE MOVEMENT. New York: The New Press.

Haney López, Ian. 1997. WHITE BY LAW: THE LEGAL CONSTRUCTION OF RACE. New York: New York University Press.

PACE v. ALABAMA, 106 US 583 (1883).

MCLAUGHLIN v. FLORIDA, 379 US 184 (1964).

LOVING v. VIRGINIA, 388 US 1 (1967).

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Mark Kessler.