The Great Fear: Miscegenation, Race “Pollution” and the 2016 Election



Racial difference is a defining feature of American life and a provocative issue is the 2016 presidential election.  Such difference was most vividly revealed in the apparent physical appearances of those who attended the Republican and Democratic Party conventions.  More troubling, it’s reflected in police killings of unarmed people of color (mostly African-American men), immigrations politics (mostly toward Hispanics) and anti-Muslim rants.

One area of racial difference that has been absent from discussion in the 2016 campaign is interracial dating and sex.  This absence might suggest that such practices have become an accepted aspect of American culture and social life.  Sadly, its absence from public discourse most likely reflects a deeper social taboo, an unstated agreement not to make a private, personal practice into a public, political issue.

Interracial mixing, especially “sexual congress,” has long been considered the great fear.  Such relations were long disparaged as race “pollution” in which interracial sex, marriages, pregnancies and births threatened to change the make-up of America society.  For many, especially millennials, those days are over; unfortunately, for too many others, they are not.

David Cole and George Wakeman, two New York “copperheads,” Northern supporters of the South, coined the term “miscegenation” in 1863, at the height of the Civil War.  It is derived from the Latin “miscere,” to mix, and “genus,” race, and was intended to be a scientific-sounding term to demonize race mixing and replace the notion of “amalgamation.” Amalgamation came from European usage and had long been used in America, referring to the mixing or blending of two or more distinct ethnic or racial groups through intermarriage or nonsexual cultural exchange.

A century-and-a-half later, in 2009, a child of the amalgamated marriage of a white American mother and black African father, Barack Obama, became president.  While his parents marriage was legal in Hawaii, the last of U.S. miscegenation laws prohibting such marriages were only ended with the Supreme Court’s 1967 Loving decision.

The Census Bureau projects that by mid-century, “white” Americans will no longer be the nation’s dominant racial group; the U.S. will be a “minority-majority” country.  The sociologist Richard Alba, who questions this assertion, observes, “The United States has historically followed a ‘one-drop’ rule in classifying people with any black ancestry as black. The census projections, in effect, extend the one-drop rule to the descendants of other mixed families.”  As Alba argues, the U.S. is not a “one-drop” nation.

In 2008, today’s Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, played the race card – and lost.  He repeatedly raised the issue of Obama’s U.S. citizenship and place of birth, questioning whether the president was really an American, born in the U.S. and thus legally capable of being president.  Trump sponsored a smear campaign that failed.  This is the same opportunist conman who, decades earlier, in April 1989, sponsored ads in New York newspapers claiming that four black youths raped a white women jogger in Central Park; Trump helped pollute the political climate and contributed to the young men’s convictions — and did not help secure their proof of innocents and ultimate vindication.

In the 2016 presidential election the issue of amalgamation, of intimate race mixing, has not been directly considered.  Its raised its ugly head only indirectly, in the coded notion of “immigration.”  The battle over immigration embodies not merely legalistic concerns involving entry and citizenship (as well as, for Trump, crime), but also sexual intimacies that for some signify race “pollution” and the decline in the “white” majority – and, with it, the further erosion of white skin privilege.

Slavery is America’s great shame; racism its deepest moral, political and structural challenge.  Racial difference – whatever it means – has been a defining issue in American life since the first days of colonization and its no surprise that it reverberates in the 2016 election.

* * *

Disney released its animated movie, “Pocahontas,” in 1995 and it generated nearly $350 million in domestic and international box-office sales and an additional $125 million in corporate merchandising tie-ins.  The Disney enterprise milked the story of this Native icon, but tells little of the true story of who Pochotos was how she became white.

On April 5, 1614, Pocahontas, a Powhatan woman and reputed daughter of Chief Powhatan, married the Englishman John Rolfe near the Jamestown, Virginia, settlement.  The marriage took place just eight years after “James Towne” was established as the first permanent English settlement in what would become the United States; Pocahontas marriage to Rolfe is the first recorded interracial marriage in the newly-colonized territory.

Pocahontas is the nickname for a girl born Matoaka in 1595 or 1596 upriver from the settlement of James Towne.  According to the Native American scholar, Paula Gunn Allen, the nickname has a variety of meanings, including “wanton,” “mischievous,” “sportive,” “frisky” and “frolicsome.”  More importantly, Pocahontas was of royal blood, a chosen-one with the power of “Dream-Vision”; she was a female visited by spirits who foretold the future.

John Smith, a mercenary soldier and adventurer, was the leader of the Jamestown settlement.  Legend and subsequent scholarship reveals that, in 1608, he was captured while attempting to reach Chief Powhaten.  The initial settlement at “Fort James,” established only a year earlier, was a near disaster, with the British settlers suffering from hunger, illness, loneliness, Native assaults and other privations.  Rumors of sodomy among early settlers were not uncommon.  Struggling to survive, Smith ventured forth to find the mighty chief and establish diplomatic relations.

As Allen tells the tale, Smith was captured and brought before the chief in the colony’s great house during an important religious ceremony.  He was forced to the ground with two warriors holding him down, their spears at the ready.  He feared imminent execution, only to be saved at the last moment when Pocahontas, aged 12 or 13, recognized Smith as the fulfillment of her Dream-Vision.

Smith reports that Englishmen who stayed overnight in a Powhatan settlement were presented with “a woman fresh painted red with pocones and oil to be his bedfellow.”  He described an “antic,” or wild fete, in which “thirty young women came naked out of the woods (only covered behind and before with a few green leaves), their bodies all painted.”  And, after performing, “they solemnly invited Smith to their lodging, but no sooner was he within the house, but all the nymphs tormented him more than ever, with crowding, and pressing, and hanging upon him, most tediously crying, love you not me?”

The sexual temptation of Native women was very threatening to upstanding Christian British settlers, especially those alone in an alien land.  In England, many British leaders feared that such intimacy would bring about “cultural degeneration” among colonists, whether in Ireland or the New World.  The great fear was that sexual relations with “savages” would lead to the erosion of what made the British “civilized.”  In response to this fear, the British passed the “Laws Divine, Moral, and Marital” in 1610 that called for the death penalty for any settler who raped an Indian woman or ran away with an Indian.

Given this cultural environment, how did Pocahontas come to marry John Rolfe?  In 1612 an English settler, Samuel Argall (aka Argyall), apparently abducted Pocahontas and held her in captivity for over a year.  During this period, she met Rolfe, a 28-year-old widower and tobacco planter and, as a condition of her release, she agreed to marry him.  What actually happened between them remains a mystery. What is known is that Pocahontas converted to Christianity, was renamed Lady Rebecca, radically changed her appearance by adopting British formal dress and, in 1614, married Rolfe.

A couple of years later, Pocahontas and Rolfe traveled to England in search of both financial backing for the Virginia colony and to promote his new commercial product, tobacco. She became, as they say, the toast of the town, feted by all. While in England, she had a son, Thomas, in 1617, and shortly thereafter, while beginning the voyage back to the New World, became ill and died.

* * *

A goodly number of incidents of sexual intimacy between British settlers and Native people, both in the Chesapeake region and further north, were reported during the pre-Revolutionary era.  (A separate history involves Spanish and French settlers and Native people.)  For example, Jacob Young, of Maryland, was charged with marrying and fathering children with a woman of the Susquehanna Nation. The New England Puritan Thomas Morton, when he took over a plantation in 1626, renamed it the Merry Mount and, according to reports from members of the nearby Plymouth Colony, “set up a maypole, drinking and dancing about in many days together, inviting the indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together.”

Sixty-seven years later, in 1681, the first recorded legal marriage between an African man and a European woman was reported to have taken place on William Boarmans’ plantation on the western shore of Maryland.  The couple — Eleanor Butler, a white servant girl called Irish Nell, and Negro Charles, a black slave — was married by a local Catholic priest.  Most surprising, Lord Baltimore, Nell’s master, and other local whites did not seek to prevent the marriage between Nell and Charles.  However, they could not understand why a white woman would marry a black slave and, thus, not only lose her own freedom but the freedom of her children.

During the early days of the settlement of the new nation, voluntary and noncommercial sexual relations between whites and non-white people deeply disturbed colonial political and religious leaders.  While they were initially between British males and Native females, as the immigration of both free and indentured European women and the forced importation of African slaves, both male and female, increased, the complexity of such “miscegenation” relations multiplied.

The fate of the child of a sexual amalgamation found particular expression in what are known as “female captivity narratives” that helped rally settler resentment against Native people.  These tales were popular in the late-17th century and championed women like Mary Rowlandson and Hannah Swarton who escaped capture by Native tribes while preserving their virginity. These tales were intended to undercut or deny the stories of women like Mary Jemison, Frances Slocum and Eunice Williams who, after captivity, chose to marry and live out their lives with Native people.

* * *

Have you ever had sex with someone “different” than yourself?  Oddly, for most heterosexual Americans, having sex with someone of a different gender is a given, be it with a male or a female.  (Having sex with someone of the same gender is another story.)  But what if the difference extends to race, nationality, ethnic group, religion, social class, age cohort or sexual proclivity?  Sexual difference can signify a great moral taboo.

In the half-century between 1959 and 2013, American’s attitude toward interracial marriage has profoundly changed. According to Gallup polls, in ’59 only 4 percent of American’s favored such unions; by ’82, this number had increased ten-fold to 43 percent; and by 2013 it doubled again to 87 percent.

This development came amidst the civil rights and counter-culture movements of the the 1960s.  In 1965, Gallup conducted a poll on interracial marriage and found that nearly three-fourths (72%) of whites in the South and two-fifths (42%) of whites in the North wanted to ban it.  Two years later, the Supreme Court outlawed state “miscegenation” laws in its landmark decision, Loving v. Virginia (1967).

Four decades later, racial difference in the U.S. has only increased with the addition of Hispanic, Asian, Middle Easterners and others adding to the mix.  The Census Bureau reported that in 2010, there were 5.4 million interracial or interethnic married-couple households in U.S., representing 9.5 percent of all married-couple households; this was an increase from 2000, when 7.4 percent of married-couple households were interracial or interethnic.  It noted, “individuals with higher educational attainment are more likely to intermarry, so one might expect that areas with higher educational levels might have more intermarried couple households.”  Pew Research confirms this development, noting, “In 2013, a record-high 12% of newlyweds married someone of a different race …”

Demographics are changing the composition of the nation’s population and the sexual attitudes of young Americans are recasting its moral order.  First and foremost, as the make-up of the U.S. population changes, the fear of social “pollution” is once again raising it ugly presence.  This tension is one of the unstated dimensions of the 2016 presidential campaign.

For over two centuries, the U.S. has been plagued by repeated bouts of discrimination against Native people, African-Americans and others.  Often forgotten, in the wake of the Second Great Awakening or the Great Revival of the 1830s, the Know-Nothing movement emerged.  It drew together Protestants who felt threatened by the rapid increase in European immigrants, most especially Irish Catholics flooding Northern cities in the wake of the 1848 potato famine. The Ku Klux Klan was established in 1866 and, during Reconstruction, began a systematic campaign against freed African Americans, including innumerable lynchings and “miscegenation” practices.  In the late-1910s, the Klan aligned with nativists, eugenicists and the Anti-Saloon League to not only promote temperance but racialist and anti-immigrant policies.  They railed not only against Germany, equated being of German extraction with being anti-American, but assailed the increasingly number of Eastern European Jewish and Italian Catholic as well as Chinese immigrants.

There is an increasing tendency among younger Americans to accept interracial relations, sex and marriage as part of normal social life.  In a 2010 report, Pew Research found that an “overwhelming majority of Millennials, regardless of race, say they would be fine with a family member’s marriage to someone of a different racial or ethnic group.”  It detailed this as follows:  “Roughly nine-in-ten say they would be fine with a family member’s marriage to an African American (88%), a Hispanic American (91%), an Asian American (93%) or a white American (92%).”  The 2015 Fusion Massive Millennial Poll confirms this tendency, reporting that more than half (54%) of the 1,000 aged 18 to 34 polled had dated outside their race and nearly nine-out-of-ten (88%) say they would consider dating someone outside their race.


The 2016 election may turnout to be the rightwing Republicans last vengeful reaction to cultural changes recasting the nation’s values.  The Christian right has essentially lost the culture war.  In the face major Supreme Court decisions, changing government policies and popular culture, it has lost numerous battles that fueled it since its inception in the early-1970s.

Today, the culture warriors of old have morphed into an even-more reactionary movement.  While remaining anchored in anti-abortion and – among hardliners – anti-gay beliefs, they have reframed their idelogy with calls for white supremacy, evangelical zeal and fictitious free-market capitalism. Old battles over abortion and gay rights have been augmented by political concerns like immigration, race relations, law and order, and taxes and government regulation.  But interracial mixing remains the great fear.



David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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