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Author: Melissa Fore
Editor: Fedwa Malti-Douglas
Date: 2007
Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender
Publisher: Macmillan Reference USA
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1480L

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Miscegenation is a term that is used to describe sexual relations, cohabitation, marriage, or procreation between people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds. At its core miscegenation is based on scientific racism and the belief that human blood and genetic material establish an individual's race. As a category of "difference," race has lost much of its currency, especially in light of scientific evidence showing that race is culturally and socially constructed. However, in the nineteenth century, with the rise of imperialism and colonization, physical attributes such as skin color, hair texture, and the shapes and sizes of body parts signaled a dramatic difference between white Europeans and the "other."


A preoccupation with racial difference and amalgamation began in the United States during the slave era (1600s–1865), and miscegenation resulted in social stigma and legal penalties for those who wished to "cross the color line." Almost every southern state had a set of codes or laws delineating standard procedures for slaveholders; included in those laws were harsh punishments for cohabitating with slaves, usually involving a substantial fine for the white perpetrator and corporal punishment for the slave.

The word miscegenation comes from the Latin miscere ("to mix") and genus (a class or group of species), and the term was coined in a post-Civil War pamphlet titled "Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro" written by David Goodman Croly in 1864. Although the pamphlet extols the virtues of interracial relationships and the potential for interracial couples to produce superior offspring, its main goal was to stir up an antimiscegenation fervor that would hurt Abraham Lincoln's Republican Party and tarnish the abolitionist movement.

The propaganda piece was distributed widely in the United States and spawned a national debate about social tolerance of interracial relationships. Anxiety over interracial intimacy and miscegenation led to the heightened implementation of miscegenation laws, which forbade any official ceremony uniting people of different races in marriage. The first miscegenation law was established in 1661 in the colony of Maryland, and the slow adoption of the law would span hundreds of years and include every state except Vermont. Miscegenation laws also made it possible to convict individuals of adultery and fornication on a wide scale; because interracial couples could not legalize their unions, any sexual intimacy between whites and nonwhites was punishable by law. Eventually miscegenation laws were expanded to include other racial and ethnic groups in state legislation; for example, in the West, white citizens were not allowed to marry Native Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiians, or Filipinos.

Claiming that sex between whites and nonwhites was unnatural, against God's law, and immoral, lawmakers attempted to strengthen the severety of punishment, and by the mid-nineteenth-century individuals charged with misgegenation could face two to ten years in prison or fall prey to lynch mobs. Between 1882 and 1968 an estimated 3,446 lynchings took place in both southern and northern states, with approximately 19.2 percent of those lynchings stemming from supposed interracial rape and 6.1 percent from attempted interracial rape. These statistics reveal a pathological anxiety toward interracial sexual relationships and the violent attempt of a nation to maintain strict racial separation.

After the first implementation of miscegenation law, three hundred years would pass before the Supreme Court would rule that forbidding marriage on the grounds of race is unconstitutional. The case that changed interracial marriage laws in the United States was Loving roman v. Virginia in 1967. In the ruling Chief Justice Earl Warren stated,

Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival. To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.

The legal ramifications of interracial sexual relationships permeated many social and cultural institutions. For instance, the Motion Picture Association's implementation of the Hays Code or Motion Picture Production Code after 1930 prohibited any depiction of interracial sexual relationships Page 1024  |  Top of Articlein movies and set a standard in film production that would last until 1967. In addition, colleges and universities, mainly in the South, developed policies that prohibited interracial dating. The most widely recognized adversary of interracial dating was Bob Jones University, whose community relations coordinator wrote in a letter to a possible candidate that intermarriage "breaks down the barriers God has established. It mixes that which God separated and intends to keep separate." During an interview on March 3, 2000, the university's president, Bob Jones III, revealed that the long-held sanction on interracial dating at Bob Jones University had been abolished.

In one nation's history the immense struggle to prohibit miscegenation in its myriad forms indicates a larger preoccupation with bloodlines, racial hierarchies, shifting power dynamics, and white supremacist ideologies.


Miscegenation in German history is bound inextricably to the study of eugenics and the belief in Aryan supremacy. In 1935 Germany established the Nuremberg Laws forbidding marriage or sexual relationships between Germans and Jews. Mirroring miscegenation laws in the United States and enthusiastically adopting scientific racism, Germany's policies were an attempt to safeguard racial purity and prevent the "pollution" of pure Aryan blood.

In Portuguese history early colonizers believed that intermixing with native peoples would result in strong and virile offspring and help bolster diminishing populations. Unlike other European colonizers, the Portuguese would marry and grant citizenship to their biracial children in places such as Brazil, São Tomé e Príncipe, and Cape Verde. The presumed benefits of miscegenation for the Portuguese colonizers resulted in a society of diverse skin tones and created a social system in which color codifies class division.

South Africa's system of apartheid is perhaps the best example of twentieth-century miscegenation law. In the 1949 Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act interracial marriage was outlawed until it was overturned in1985. Stricter laws adopted in 1950 stipulated that any sexual contact between a white person and a nonwhite person was criminal under the Immorality Act.


Croly, David G. 1864. Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro. New York: H. Dexter, Hamilton.

Lemire, Elise Virginia. 2002. "Miscegenation": Making Race in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Plait, Jonathan. 1998. "Letter from Bob Jones University Re: Interracial Dating." The Multiracial Activist. Available from http://multiracial.com/site .

Sollors, Werner, ed. 2000. Interracialism: Black-White Intermarriage in American History, Literature, and Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

                                                     Melissa Fore

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2896200429