Anti-Miscegenation Laws in the United States

In order to understand what an anti-miscegenation law is, it is important to look at the definition of the term miscegenation. This term is derived from two Latin words miscere, which means to mix, and genus, which refers to type, family, or descent (Frederickson, 1971). This term has therefore been used to refer to the mixing of racial groups, ethnicities, and in rare circumstances different religions, in most cases referring to cohabitation or intermarriage between such groups. It has also been used to describe situations where two persons of different racial backgrounds produce offspring without necessarily cohabiting or getting married. In the United States this term was mostly used in the context of white man’s racist attitudes and black man’s alleged craving for the white woman (Jordan, 1968). The very initial cases of racial mixing were witnessed with the emergence of the system of slavery. These initial cases commonly happened under the threat of violence using physical domination and rape (Frederickson, 1971). These interracial relationships lead to children of mixed races and eventually became a way in which power relationships between whites and blacks in America was manifested.

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The existence of such relationships prompted several states, even before the establishment of the United States, to enact anti-miscegenation laws, this remained part of American law until late 1960s (Jordan, 1968). These anti-miscegenation laws were passed by states individually illegalizing miscegenation, or interracial marriage as commonly known currently, and interracial sex. This law considered miscegenation as a felony, officiating of weddings between individuals of different races was also prohibited including related ceremonies. However, there was lack of uniformity on the felony charges one would be held guilty of since they could not be held guilty of miscegenation. The charges of felony that would be brought against such individuals included adultery or fornication. Specifically, the anti-miscegenation laws banned whites and non-white groups from getting married, these mainly targeted blacks, but in some cases also included Native Americans and Asians. Other than just criminalizing marriage, the anti- miscegenation laws in a number of states also criminalized sex and cohabitation between the groups concerned.

It is obvious that these laws were not only numerous but also varied in various aspects. The first difference was on defining individuals who would fall in the prohibited class, this varies from one geographical location of the states to another. What seemed unanimous was the prohibition of Negro-White marriages which all states practiced. In other states the marriage between Whites and Mongoloid persons was forbidden, while in other states the marriage between Negros and Indians was forbidden. A few states also prohibited marriages between Indians and Whites. The emphasis on the prohibition of racial intermarriage also differed, in some states it was so abhorrent that there was a constitutional provision to that effect. This difference in emphasis also brought a difference on the application of such laws to the children of miscegenous marriages, some have not been meant for this group whereas others do not have a clear interpretation (Jordan, 1968).

Impact of this policy

Several myths focusing on racial segregation in America have assumed that the different racial groups have lived apart all along and that this is dictated by nature and little can be done to change the situation. However, the fact is that in the early times when American colonies were being settled, Black slaves and White indentured servants worked together. This meant that these two groups were close to each other and thus it was common to experience interracial attraction. With these two groups relating there was a complication on the social boundary between Blacks and Whites since there was not much difference between them, both involved in hard labor even though Blacks were slaves and the Whites were free and only chose temporary contract. In order to clearly bring out the distinction, anti-miscegenation laws checked on mixing of race (Freeman, 2005). It was argued that this mixing of race undermined sanctity of free White labor and the legitimacy of Black’s position as property and this had to be corrected. In addition to this, anti-miscegenation laws also classified a racial hierarchy in which Whites were considered free while Blacks were not. These anti-miscegenation laws brought about a gap between the Whites and Blacks with the latter getting inferior treatment. Whites started mistreating Blacks especially the White male slaveholders who demanded sex from their Black female slaves, this despite the ban on interracial sex. The White males could violate these rules and get away with it which was not the case with the Blacks. Whenever the Black women tried to resist the White men, they would be punished, raped, or sold on the auction block.

These laws in fact led to the increase of interracial sex and ultimately mixed-race offspring, this led to a new dilemma, that of how to identify such offspring. The traditional way of identifying a child status was by considering the heritage of the father, however going by this rule would make most mixed-race children to be white and free since most interracial sex was between white male and black female (Davis, 1991). This complicated the line between white and black, slave and free. This complication was solved by changing the rule of determining the status of child from patrilineal to matrilineal. This ensured that children of mixed-race remained black and more or less forever slaves. However this did not make things very simple since even the white females also started to fall in love with the black slaves. Things even became more complicated with the arrival of the Asian immigrants since the anti-miscegenation laws could not be applied equally. In general, all other races were treated as inferior regardless of their contribution to the American land. This meant that all the non-white races had to come together to survive and this created a new set of racial fears. The whites feared that there was a potential of an independent community rising and this would be a community of foreigners in American soil. This led the whites to try all manner of discrimination against the other races in order to make them remain inferior. Such actions became violent and even led to the death of many non-whites who with time also retaliated by killing whites at the slightest opportunity (Freeman, 2005). This gave rise to a society characterized by crime and discrimination, a trend that is still experienced up-to-date in the United States of America.

Other than the Africans who were taken to America majorly as slaves, there were immigrants from several other regions including China, India and Japan. These immigrants majorly provided expert services to the economy of America. Since even they were discriminated against by the anti-miscegenation laws most of them opted to get back to their countries and those who wanted to move into America also got discouraged. This made the American economy to lose out on manpower which had a direct effect on the society. The society could not take advantage of new skills from other countries which would otherwise have been shared among them.

In general anti-miscegenation laws directly encouraged and motivated racism in America, it may have not been the beginning of racism but it was one way through which racism received some legal backing. With racism on the rise the American citizens were not getting a chance to contribute collectively to the development of the country (Freeman, 2005). This collective contribution is very critical for the development and success of any state. By denying a particular class of persons a chance to access education, they become useless as far as technological and medical contributions in the society are concerned. The ultimate effect of this is that there will be obstruction to the economic progress of the state hence that of the society. By preventing interracial marriages and relationship, the laws basically prevented mixing of cultures, this means that the different races would not understand each other culturally and thus do not appreciate the differences and similarities that exist. This creates an ethnocentric society which cannot develop socially and people do not relate well. Even though the white Americans tried so much to separate races, the truth is that there are occasions where the different races would have to come together, it is therefore important that other races are accepted and not merely tolerated. These anti-miscegenation laws also destroyed the morality of the society. The races that were considered superior mistreated the ones that were considered inferior since there were no repercussions for such actions, this was crime that was indirectly legalized. Immoral sexual acts such as rape, prostitution, fornication and even abortions increased significantly.


Even though anti-miscegenation laws were still present in some states as late as in the 1960s, most states had done away with them. Most states did away with such laws due to a number of cases that were brought before courts that ruled in favor of the complainants. Most civil rights proponents also joined the war against anti-miscegenation laws and of much importance was that the laws were against the constitutional provisions which protected the rights of individuals. Even though these laws were abolished with time, the effects are still felt to date.


Davis, F. James. 1991. Who is Black? One Nation’s Definition. University Park: Pennsylvania State

Frederickson, George M. 1971. The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American

Character and Destiny, 1817-1914. New York: Harper & Row Publishers.

Freeman, Victoria. 2005. “Attitudes Toward ‘Miscegenation’ in Canada, the United States, New

Zealand, and Australia, 1860-1914.” Native Studies Review 16(1): 39-66.

Jordan, Winthrop. 1968. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812.

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.