- Romance and Rights: The Politics of Interracial Intimacy, 1945–1954
Alex Lubin's alternatively thought-provoking and frustrating new study explores the meanings of interracial intimacy in American politics and culture in the ten years following World War II. Focusing primarily on black-white relationships—because, Lubin argues, the bulk of the sources relate to black-white relationships and because relationships between blacks and whites engendered far more controversy than other kinds of interracial pairings—Lubin asserts that World War II created new conditions which gave rise to a form of politics centered on black intimacy with whites. Although the courts and postwar popular culture sought to keep interracial intimacy in the private sphere and to contain the political transformations it could engender, the black press and at least some black civil rights activists celebrated examples of black-white romances and marriages and embraced interracial intimacy as a civil rights issue.
Lubin begins Romance and Rights by explaining how World War II enabled interracial intimacy to become viewed as a civil rights issue. For the first time, domestic racial discrimination became a liability to American foreign policy, as the United States positioned itself as the protector of freedom and democracy opposing first Nazi Germany, and later, the USSR. The United States framed itself as the land of tolerance, opportunity, and racial harmony, at least in opposition to totalitarianism. The war helped discredit biological racism, making [End Page 534] it harder to oppose interracial marriage on the grounds that blacks were biologically inferior. Under these new conditions, examples of black and white intimacy could be viewed as proof that white racism was waning and that blacks were worthy partners for whites.
The bulk of Romance and Rights describes how whites sought to contain the politics of interracial intimacy, while black activists sought to exploit it. The first two chapters trace how the courts and postwar popular culture sought to contain the possibilities engendered by interracial intimacy by locating the issue firmly in the private sphere, where it could not be a matter of civil rights. This was especially important for southern courts, which feared that the federal government would intervene in their regulation of interracial relationships if interracial romance and marriage were viewed as civil rights issues. Instead, southern courts argued that interracial intimacy should be viewed as local or regional issues subject to regulation by the states, rather than the federal government. Lubin also finds that postwar films and comic books sought to contain the possibilities of interracial intimacy by portraying it as a private matter of individual choice located firmly in the domestic sphere. Comic books used stories of interracial romance to present cautionary tales designed to educate white women about making proper romantic choices. Films also failed to open up any space for consideration of America's violent history of racialized sexual exploitation. Some of these discussions beg for more context. In his examination of miscegenation laws, for example, Lubin nowhere makes clear that the states, not the federal government, have had the authority to regulate marriage since the country's founding. Later Lubin argues that postwar films undermined the transgressive potential of portrayals of interracial intimacy by casting white actors in the roles of blacks who were passing. But nowhere does he discuss the film production codes, which barred depictions of "miscegenation" on screen and led some directors to use white actors so they could depict "interracial" love scenes.
The strongest chapters of the book explore how some blacks tried to make interracial intimacy into a civil rights issue, and the limitations of this form of politics. The black press, especially the magazines of Jack Johnson, was most adamant in insisting that cross-racial intimacy should be celebrated and should be recognized as proof of improving race relations. Such relationships showed, among other things, that racial differences were only skin deep, that blacks could be accepted and loved by whites and that the offspring of blacks and whites were not inferior. Interracial intimacy most clearly became a civil rights issue when...