Posted in 19th century America, assimilation, borderlands, homelessness, journal articles, law, marginalization, Native Americans, reformers

To Domesticate and Civilize Wild Indians’: Allotment and the Campaign to Reform Indian Families, 1875-1887

Stremlau, Rose. 2005. “‘To Domesticate and Civilize Wild Indians’: Allotment and the Campaign to Reform Indian Families, 1875-1887”. Journal of Family History. 30, no. 3: 265-286.

By the 1880s, critics of Indian affairs proposed a solution to the “Indian problem,” which they saw as the refusal or inability of Native Americans to assimilate into American society. Native families lived in multigenerational, multifamily households. These extended households generated the social reproduction of Native societies. Reformers believed that Native American communal systems prevented assimilation, so they implemented federal policies to fracture the kinship relationships into male-dominant, nuclear families, modeled after white middle-class American households. The primary policy offered American citizenship and property ownership in exchange for agreeing to move away from tribal land.  This act was meant to foster individualism, defeat communalism, and instill the core values of white American culture.  It also provided the reformers with the excess tribal land not allotted to the Native Americans.  In 1887, President Grover Cleveland signed the Dawes Act. The reformers believed that they had freed the oppressed Indian people by dismantling communal and tribal relations.   These amendments resulted in dramatic losses of land that impoverished Indian communities. Stremlau concludes that “throughout the brutal poverty and oppression of the allotment period, Native kin continued to care for one another, however, and it was only this communalism that enabled Native people to survive.” (281)

Stremlau presents a strong argument that shows how misguided American people and lawmakers can be in their pursuit to inflict “American values” on other cultures, even within our own borders.  Their “well-meaning” policies stripped Native Americans of their land and heritage.  I disagree with the author’s assessment of the reformers’ and lawmakers’ good intentions; rather, arrogance, racism, and greed motivated these reforms.  The article shows how decisions made by those in power can disenfranchise communities and steal resources from large groups of people.  This article, along with Buried in the Bitter Waters, shows how those in power made entire communities homeless and established a precedent that promulgated multigenerational poverty.

Posted in gender studies, immigrants, law, marginalization, sexuality

The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America

Canaday, Margot. The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Margot Canaday is a legal and political historian at Princeton University whose teaching interests include gender and women’s history, the history of sexuality, and American political and legal history.  Her first book, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America, won seven major awards from a diverse group of organizations, including the Organization of American Historians, the American Political Science Association, the Association of American Law Schools and the Lambda Literary Foundation.  The central argument of the book is that “homosexual identity and modern citizenship crystalized…in tandem with the rise of the federal bureaucracy.”[1] Canaday argues that both identities (citizen and homosexual) are not only configured through state bureaucracy, but that both identities have been formed against one another.

Canaday examines three key areas of government control (immigration, the military, and welfare) to demonstrate how federal enforcement of sexual norms developed simultaneously with the rise of American federal bureaucracy.  Two chapters are dedicated to each of these three arenas, providing a comprehensive analysis of the denial of citizenship to gay people through immigration, military, and welfare policies.[2]  These policies “established individuals who exhibited gender inversion or engaged in homoerotic behaviour as either outside of or degraded within citizenship.”[3]

The Bureau of Immigration, which was established in 1895, was one of the earliest federal agencies concerned with homosexuality, according to Canaday.[4]  Immigration officials “lumped together aliens who exhibited gender inversion, had anatomical defects, or engaged in sodomy as degenerates.  Degeneracy was a racial and economic construct that explained the ‘immorality of the poor.”[5]  This identification was used to deny or deport poor people, single women (no husband or provider), and people of color, who were believed to be “primitive” and therefore “especially inclined toward perversion.”[6]

Canaday researched a wide variety of primary government sources, including court case testimony and official correspondences, immigration records, Veterans Administration records, and Congressional records.  Secondary resources included medical journal articles and books.

The arguments in this book most closely relate to arguments presented in Impossible Subjects.   Ngai shows how immigration laws were used as a tool for exclusion through the development of the new status of “illegal alien” and how these laws produced racialized identities.  Canaday shows how immigration, military, and welfare policies co-produced identities of homosexual and citizen.  But Ngai does not include an analysis of gender in her discussion, whereas gender is central to Canaday’s argument.

[1] Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009), 255.

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 20n.3.

[5] Ibid., 22.

[6] Ibid., 29.

Posted in 20th century America, African Americans, capitalism, class, gentrification, law, marginalization, material culture, racism, urban studies, violence

Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City

Gordon, Colin. Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

St. Louis, Missouri was once a thriving metropolis, but is now a ruined landscape. As Colin Gordon explains in Mapping Decline, “[d]isinvestment and depopulation are so pronounced in central St. Louis that pockets of unintended green have replaced much of the housing stock.”[1] In this book, Gordon researches and maps the causes and costs of St. Louis’s urban crisis.[2] His research shows that St. Louis’ failure was not a consequence of free market conditions, where people simply wanted a bigger or better house in the suburbs. It actually reveals how racist policies and attitudes dramatically shaped the demographic boundaries of the city. Specifically, Gordon shows how federal and local governments, as well as private industry, were complicit in maintaining segregated neighborhoods by blocking minorities from residing in white communities.

Gordon puts much of the blame on policies created by the St. Louis Real Estate Exchange (SLREE). He claims that around 1915, “The fear of ‘negro invasion’ in St. Louis was best expressed, and carefully orchestrated, by local realtors.[3] They created ‘restricted deed covenants’ to prevent minorities from moving into white areas (zones). The SLREE regulated and constrained its members even where no covenants existed.”[4] Real estate agents who sold homes to African Americans outside of the zone would lose their licenses.[5] Even though restricted deed covenants were judged to not be legally enforceable by the Supreme Court in Shelley vs. Kraemer in 1948, the practice continued.[6]

Furthermore, Gordon illuminates federal culpability in maintaining a segregated society. New federal policies enabled white flight from the city into the nearest suburbs. FHA mortgage insurance was primarily granted to white people moving to the suburbs, in effect, subsidizing white flight, while federal public housing assistance was implemented mainly in the inner city, which helped to solidify the region’s spatial organization of race and poverty.[7] Gordon claims that these suburbs “poached” the city’s resources while placing restrictive zoning policies on their own neighborhoods that kept out minorities.[8] In addition, during the housing boom that followed World War II, the federal government figured prominently in segregating neighborhoods through a process known as “redlining,” which essentially barred banks from investing in areas inhabited by people of color.[9] Housing and urban-renewal legislation cleared out black neighborhoods (“slum clearance”) that were perceived to threaten business districts and replaced them with public-housing projects.[10]

Mapping Decline is unique for the ways in which it combines archival research with geographic information system (GIS) digital mapping techniques.  The book includes more than 75 full-color maps that were rendered from census data, archival sources, case law, and local real estate records. Together the maps trace the ways private property restrictions, local planning and zoning, federal housing policies, and urban renewal encouraged “white flight” and urban decline in St. Louis.

The research for Mapping Decline began with a grant to apply GIS technology to the historical intersections of blight and public policy. As Gordon and his partner, Peter Fisher, wrestled with the challenge of digitizing historical sources, they soon realized that they needed a local case study. Sorting through the legal and political history of “blight,” they noticed that many of the most egregious cases were in the St. Louis suburbs. Their research revealed a general pattern found in many modern American cities, where “wealth sprawled to the urban fringe and the central city suffered stark and sustained decline.”[11] Gordon presents Mapping Decline as the St. Louis chapter of a story of urban decline that has been exposed in other studies, namely, Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960 (1998) and Tom Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996).[12]

Gordon created a supplementary website to the book, “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the American City” ( Four interactive maps that relate to major themes in the book show visitors St. Louis’ deterioration in terms of “White Flight,” “Race and Property,” “Municipal Zoning,” and “Urban Renewal.” Each map page is animated by a chronological slidebar or a menu of map layers, and includes primary source documents. Visitors to the site can see change over time within each map by moving the slidebar across different date ranges. Primary source documents, such as zoning maps, urban renewal plans, and legal documents, can be viewed by selecting the “Documents” checkbox on the map page or by selecting “Documents” from the site’s main menu. Notes about historical context and full bibliographic citations are included for each resource. In addition, the website includes a page of links to other web-based historical GIS projects, data and map sources, and St. Louis documents and maps. Unfortunately, a number of these links proved to be outdated or broken at the time of the review. One of the projects, “Digital Harlem, Daily Life 1915-1930,” could be relinked by updating the URL to, while others, such as “Mapping Dubois,” were not located through searches.

The “Mapping Decline: About the Maps” page offers a number of interesting data options and tools to assist further research. Researchers who are members of Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research can log in and download 1940-2000 tract level census data used in Gordon’s study. The site also offers a link to Social Explorer, which provides easy-to-use tools for visual exploration of demographic information. Gordon notes that the Race and Property, Municipal Zoning, and Urban Renewal series are based on a number of archival sources and public data, which he further explains and provides links to relevant collections. The Urban Renewal link is outdated, but a Google search located the appropriate link to St. Louis’ Open Data page, which includes census data, property information, and geospatial data.

Even though I appreciate the scholarship and ingenuity that went into Gordon’s study, and resulting book and website, I could not help but feel that the project felt isolated from larger, related social issues and lacked much needed counter narratives and personal stories. Although much different in scope and context, one example of a study that connects forced segregation with consumerism is Liz Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003). Cohen shows how the mass-consumption-driven economy offered false promises of political and economic democracy following World War II. Her study also revealed how federal policies and local racism prevented people of color from upward mobility and access to white suburbia. And Katherine Beckett and Steve Herbert’s Banished: The New Social Control in Urban America (2011) shows how a set of almost invisible policing practices ban the homeless and other “disorderly” people from occupying certain public spaces. Once “zoned out,” they are subject to arrest if they return. Gordon might have connected his findings to issues, such as consumerism or the control of unwanted urban populations, that would have enriched his overall story.

Gordon also failed to provide counter narratives to the arguments and maps he presented or to personal stories that could have helped the reader connect to the lived experience of African Americans living in St. Louis. Additional research using newspaper articles, letters, or oral history interviews would have shown how people in African American communities fought against the discriminatory practices highlighted in Mapping Decline. Gordon briefly mentioned actions by the NAACP, but did not convert any of their court cases into visual data.

Even with these oversights, Gordon’s study has successfully connected to recent social and political events. In 2014, Gordon’s maps helped frame a discussion about unrest in Ferguson, Missouri following the Michael Brown shooting, an event that launched the Black Lives Matter movement. On August 14, 2014, BloombergBuisinessweek published an article, “The County Map That Explains Ferguson’s Tragic Discord,” which highlights the maps posted on Gordon’s website. The article begins with the question, “What does a map have to do with a riot?”[13] The rest of the article connects Gordon’s maps to other recent scholarship to show how a history of racism and inequitable development of the city contributed to the recent tragedy.

Gordon and his research have become authoritative resources for people all over the country who are trying to make sense of events in Ferguson and St. Louis at large. Earlier this year, Gordon became the star witness in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of the Missouri NAACP against the Ferguson-Florissant School District in North County, St. Louis. In his testimony, Gordon exclaimed that “white flight patterns moved first from the city of St. Louis into the northern suburbs in the county. Blacks became concentrated in various large apartment complexes east of West Florissant Avenue, such as those on Canfield Drive, where Michael Brown was shot on Aug. 9, 2014.”[14] Gordon contends, in his book and testimony, that the city’s boundaries were drawn to keep black people out. “The seeds of that past discrimination are blooming now.”[15]

Another news article that references Gordon’s research went beyond the city’s physical restrictions to explain why white people and people of color continue to be separated psychologically. Michael Allen, director of the Preservation Research Office in St. Louis underscored centuries-long white fear of African American franchise and agency with the following questions: “What would happen if the slaves revolted? If they got the right to vote? If thousands came and took our jobs? If they lived next door? If they came to the suburbs we built to get away from them? Or the suburbs we built to get away from those suburbs?”[16] This same article also suggested that any transition out of the current state of affairs would be difficult for a city that has been finding ways to control black people’s movements for hundreds of years, noting that “Today’s rules are about curfews, sagging pants, and evening protests. In the late 1770s, Spanish colonial ordinances restricted slaves from holding nocturnal assemblies, dressing ‘in barbarous fashion,’ and leaving their cabins.”[17] The parallels are eye-opening.

Seeing the connections between the historical and urgent current events in our country has given me a greater appreciation for Gordon’s book and website. As his research and news stories show, the results of systemic racism are not easily overcome. I expect that Mapping Decline will continue to contribute to this national conversation for years to come.

[1] Colin Gordon, Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 4.

[2] In addition to Mapping Decline, Gordon authored Growing Apart: A Political History of American Inequality (2013); Dead on Arrival: The Politics of Health in Twentieth Century America (2003); and New Deals: Business, Labor and Politics, 1920-1935 (1994).  His digital projects include “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the American City” (, an interactive mapping project based on his St. Louis research; “Digital Johnson County” (, which provides access to a wide range of map and data layers documenting the social, natural, and political history of Johnson County, Iowa; and “The Telltale Chart” (, a data visualization project that focuses on historical and recent economic data.

[3] Gordon, 70.

[4] Ibid., 83.

[5] Ibid., 84.

[6] Ibid., 71.

[7] Ibid., 98-99.

[8] Ibid., 221.

[9] Ibid., 96-97, 103-09.

[10] Ibid., 162-63.

[11] Ibid., 222.

[12] Ibid., xiii.

[13] Peter Coy, “The County Map That Explains Ferguson’s Tragic Discord,” BloombergBusinessweek, August 15, 2014, accessed November 1, 2016,

[14] Tony Messenger, “Historian Highlights Racial Divide That Haunts St. Louis,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 13, 2016, accessed November 1, 2016,

[15] Ibid.

[16] Jeannette Cooperman, “St. Louis: A City Divided,” Aljazeera America, August 18, 2014, accessed November 1, 2016,

[17] Ibid.

Posted in 19th century America, African Americans, education, Ku Klux Klan, law, marginalization, material culture, missionaries, paternalism, religion, resistance, slavery, violence

Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom

Williams, Heather Andrea. Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

Heather Andrea Williams’ study emerged from one historical question: “What did ordinary African Americans in the South do to provide education for themselves during slavery and when slavery ended?”[1] Williams dispels common myths that African Americans did little to educate themselves while enslaved and that white Northern missionaries were chiefly responsible for educating emancipated slaves. Self-Taught claims that the fight for education was inseparable from the fight against slavery. Williams shows that enslaved and free African Americans highly regarded literacy for practical purposes (e.g., recording children’s births, reading the Bible), and as a means for freedom. Both before and after enslavement, African Americans organized to educate themselves, and in the wake of their newly found freedom, collectively pursued public education as a right, which positively influenced the overall development of public schools in the South. The sight of black adults and children filling schoolhouses inspired many whites to seek an education for themselves. But many white leaders worried that blacks would ultimately surpass poor whites and upset the traditional social order.[2] By declaring their right to public education, formerly enslaved people paved the way for state-funded education for all races in the 1800s.[3]

Williams’ first book is based on her 2002 dissertation from Yale University, “Self-Taught: The Role of African Americans in Educating the Freed People, 1861—1871.”  Before returning to graduate school, she served as an Assistant Attorney General and Section Chief for the State of New York and as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice.[4]  Clearly, Williams’ legal background assisted her nuanced interpretation of evidence, which came from diverse archives, such as the Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands; U.S. Senate reports on the Ku Klux Klan; U.S. War Department 128 volume The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; and the American Missionary Association Manuscripts, 1839—1882. In addition, she scoured historical newspapers and periodicals published by sources that offered first-hand accounts, such as the American Missionary Association and black presses. Through detailed biographical descriptions, Williams invites her readers to enter into the captivating details of individuals’ lives and struggles.

Williams acknowledges the research that her study was built upon, most of which she challenges. In 1941, Henry Lee Swint was the first to write a monograph on the topic, The Northern Teacher in the South, 1862-1871. The book justified white southern hostilities towards black education, focusing mostly on how northern abolitionist beliefs disregarded the southern way of life.[5] Williams values the contributions of Robert C. Morris’ Reading, ‘Riting, and Reconstruction (1981), but points out that it focuses more on missionary teachers than on freedpeople.[6] And Jaqueline Jones’ Soldiers of Light and Love (1980) showed African Americans as active participants in their education; however, the main focus of the book is on missionary teachers and their motivations for heading South to teach.[7] To balance these biased accounts, Williams crafts her narrative of the early stages of African American education from the perspective of slaves and free blacks.

The story is told in nine chapters, an epilogue, and an appendix that documents various antebellum statutes that prohibited teaching slaves and free blacks. The first three chapters are instrumental in setting the foundation for the rest of the book. Chapter 1, “In Secret Places,” explores what literacy meant to enslaved people and recounts how they achieved this goal against almost insurmountable odds. Williams mentions that many historians attribute antiliteracy legislation to Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831; however, she notes that it began a century earlier in 1739 in the aftermath of the Stono Rebellion.[8] Fearing insurrection, southern legislatures implemented laws to prevent people from instructing slaves or free blacks to read and write. Around 1830, as southern states “ratcheted up their efforts to sustain a way of life that depended on slavery,” northern abolitionists shifted into action prompted by a North Carolina statute that articulated the connection between slave literacy and slave control.[9] Other states soon followed suit. Williams discloses how slaves developed superior listening and memory skills, which enabled them to share news through word of mouth. Slaves observed the intense surveillance and control related to their literacy skills, and recognized them as a means to freedom. Williams explores the ways African Americans stealthily grew literate and shared their skills with one another.

Chapter 2, “A Coveted Possession: Literacy in the First Days of Freedom,” follows African Americans out of slavery into contraband camps and freedpeople’s villages. Community leaders contacted Northern missionaries requesting their assistance. Williams presents the story from the vantage point of former slaves, challenging earlier studies framed solely by missionaries’ perspectives. Earlier works promoted the notion that newly freed slaves passively accepted their education from northern missions. In contrast, Williams reveals freedpeople’s motivations and drive for obtaining an education for themselves. They built and taught within their own schools, many times facing great risk of violence from white southerners. Benevolent societies, including the Freedmen’s Bureau and the American Missionary Association, often took credit for single-handedly educating former slaves. Although the resources provided by these groups were essential, many well-meaning reformers carried their racial misconceptions with them, which in turn, colored their interactions and resulting documentation of the events.

Chapter 3, “The Men Are Actually Clamoring for Books: African American Soldiers and the Educational Mission,” also follows African Americans out of slavery, but this time, into the Union Army. Williams discusses the link between perceived manhood and soldiering. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, many African American men joined the Union Army in the hope of finding equal treatment, which they did not find. Literate men, however, were afforded elevated status within black communities. Central to Williams’ discussion are the men and women who were integral to the “teaching corps” for soldiers.[10] These soldiers helped to build and teach in schools across Arkansas, Virginia, Georgia, and other states. Additionally, these teachers contributed thousands of dollars toward the founding of the Lincoln Institute, a permanent legacy for future generations. The most notable personality was Elijar Marrs, a self-taught slave who became a sergeant in the Union Army. Following the end of war, he became a teacher in Kentucky for thirty years, modeling the highest ideals of Williams’ study.

Chapters 4-9 focus on African American schools, students, and communities. Chapter 4, “We Must Get Education for Ourselves and our Children: Advocacy for Education,” examines the political organizing of newly freed people, revealing the importance of self-help and self-determination as community values. The chapter also traces early efforts to make education a civil right. Chapter 5, “We are Striving to do Business on our own Hook: Organizing Schools on the Ground,” explores how African Americans initially implemented their schools and the resulting conflicts with white northerners over their control. Chapter 6, “We are Laboring under Many Difficulties: African American Teachers in Freedpeople’s Schools,” exposes the struggle to secure adequate physical supplies and the fight to attain suitable levels of education for teachers. African American teachers in Georgia in 1866 are the main focus of the chapter.  Chapter 7, “A Long and Tedious Road to Travel for Knowledge: Textbooks and Freedpeople’s Schools,” investigates the content and availability of textbooks for freedpeople’s schools. This chapter also examines the proslavery ideology taught to white children in Confederate States. The primary focus of chapter 8, “If Anybody Wants an Education, it is Me: Students in Freedpeople’s Schools,” is students’ motivations for attending school and their expectations of teachers. The chapter also focuses on how teachers assessed student intellect and potential. Finally, chapter 9, “First Movings of the Waters: The Creation of Common School Systems for Black and White Students,” traces how African Americans influenced white communities’ interest in education in the South.

The book concludes with a short summary of a 1911 study of black Southern schools by W. E. B. Du Bois and a team of researchers at Fisk University. Du Bois concluded that most black teachers were underpaid and undertrained and school facilities were “wretched and inadequate.”[11] By this time, Jim Crow legislation had been enacted across southern and western states. The team emphasized that the educational focus on industrial training reduced the amount of time students should be spending on basic academic skills, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic.

My only disappointment with the book is that it ended too quickly. Williams’ ending leads particularly well into the “education of black people” debates that Du Bois and Booker T. Washington had during the early part of the twentieth century. There is also much to be said about Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington’s collaboration on the Rosenwald Schools of the 1920s through the 1940s, which is a topic of great interest among historic preservationists today. Hopefully, Williams will write a sequel.

[1] Heather Andrea Williams, Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 1.

[2] Ibid., 183.

[3] Ibid., 176.

[4] Lauren Feiner, “Historian to Join Africana Studies Department as a Presidential Professor,” The Daily Pennsylvanian, May 14, 2014, accessed January 22, 2017,

[5] Williams, 3.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 13.

[9] Ibid., 15.

[10] Ibid., 49.

[11] Ibid., 199.

Posted in gentrification, homelessness, law, marginalization, tourism, urban studies

Banished: The New Social Control in Urban America

Beckett, Katherine, and Steven Kelly Herbert. Banished: The New Social Control in Urban America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Using Seattle, Washington as their case study, Beckett and Herbert examine the growing use of legal tools that criminalize poverty and limit the movement of people labeled “undesirable.” They label the use of these tools as “banishment.” As Seattle began reconstructing its image as a tourist destination, downtown business associations and anti-crime organizations campaigned to clear the streets of visual reminders of poverty. Beckett and Herbert assert that banishment is a legal alternative for loitering and vagrancy laws, which were decreed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court (14). Police officers are allowed to stop and issue trespass admonishments for no reason other than deeming someone to be lacking a “legitimate purpose” for being there (56). Hundreds of people are prevented from going to parks and businesses. Violating orders subjects people to arrest, trial, and jail; yet, following these orders isolates these same people from their community, so most people do not obey them.

Banished is a good resource for understanding the legal means police have at their disposal to prevent certain people from public places. Although the book focuses on Seattle, the methods are applicable to any American city that wishes to exclude certain people from their resources. The book raises awareness about ongoing gentrification efforts and the damaging effects of excluding people from public spaces.

Posted in African Americans, Japanese Americans, law, marginalization, Native Americans, paternalism, racism

What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America

Pascoe, Peggy. What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Peggy Pascoe’s What Comes Naturally shows how miscegenation laws turned courts and state legislatures into factories of institutional racism, producing race in everything from “language to criminal prosecution to the structuring of families.”[1] Pascoe argues that beginning in the 1860s, the idea that interracial marriage is unnatural converged with a belief in white supremacy, giving birth to the term “miscegenation.”[2] At a time when slavery was still legal in the U.S., but on the verge of the Civil War, these new laws didn’t discourage slaveowners from sexually engaging with their slaves or having mixed-race children. However, they legally prevented these men from turning female slaves into respectable wives who were entitled to citizenship rights and property inheritance.[3] Judges established these laws through a process that delineated legitimate marriage against illicit sex, which ultimately cast all interracial relationships as immoral. Interracial couples found themselves in a legal and moral quandary because those who were not allowed to marry could be prosecuted for illicit sexual relations. Pascoe successfully demonstrates through legal case studies that fundamental matters of citizenship and freedom were at stake, not only for Whites and Blacks, but for people defined within any racial category.[4]

Signifying the wide reach of these laws (both in time and place), the cover photo displays Harry Bridges and Noriko Sawada, who in 1958, tried to get married in Reno, Nevada, but were refused by license clerk, Viola Givens, who insisted that race outweighed citizenship rights where marriage was concerned.[5] The couple was married later that same afternoon after Bridges, a well-known labor leader, took Sawada, his lawyers, and an entourage of reporters to the office of district judge Taylor Wines to request him to order the clerk to issue the license based on California’s exception of miscegenation law.[6]  Pascoe shows through this and other court cases how marriage licensing became the dominant enforcement tool for these laws.[7]

Reform activism challenged prevalent notions of the unnatural nature of interracial marriage by framing marital partner choice as a natural and civil right. One case in particular, Perez v. Sharp, set the precedent in 1948 for finding miscegenation laws unconstitutional when California lawyer, Dan Marshall, argued the case as a freedom of religion issue. Experts were challenged in open court about outdated and debunked racial evidence that the law was originally based upon. Black newspapers reported the testimonial shift from “‘democratic’ America to Nazi Germany” as the “grotesque reasoning of eugenicists” came under fire.[8]  In the end, the six judges were equally divided on the decision. The seventh and deciding vote came from Justice Douglas Edmonds who accepted Marshall’s religious freedom argument.[9] Unfortunately, the decision did not settle matters once and for all; however, Pascoe shows how it open the door for other couples, such as Bridges and Sawada, to legally marry.

Pascoe indicates that the NAACP maintained conventional views of sex and gender, fearing that challenging anti-miscegenation laws would jeopardize their anti-segregation efforts.[10] It wasn’t until the 1950s that the NAACP adopted a legal strategy around the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. The Supreme Court heard the case of Loving v. Virginia in 1967 and overturned miscegenation laws on the basis that they denied a “fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications.”[11] Pascoe seems wary about the long-term effects of the Loving decision, especially related to notions of colorblindness, noting how the conservative right has used colorblindness to “roll back hard-won civil rights programs,” such as Affirmative Action.[12]

Pascoe effectively uses sources to illustrate how state-sanctioned marriage became the cornerstone of America’s institutional racism. However, she did not include many examples of the victories won by the other side or of instances where interracial couples were allowed to marry. She briefly discusses legal marriages between Filipino and other races in Los Angeles up until the early 1930s, but does not analyze that example within the context of her larger narrative.[13] Her overall argument would have been stronger had she analyzed why, when, and where some interracial marriages were allowed while others were denied. This information would have helped support her contention that laws shape social norms.

What Comes Naturally reveals how marriage law can be used as a powerful tool for discriminating against others based on what is considered “natural.” Pascoe’s argument is relevant to current debates over gay marriage.

[1] Peggy Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 14.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Ibid., 27.

[4] Ibid., 12-13.

[5] Ibid., 235-37. Givens stated, “It’s not where you were born. It’s blood that counts.”

[6] Ibid., 235-36.

[7] The power and authority that county clerks have over issues of a person’s right to marry was recently called into question by the actions of Rowan County, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis in September 2015 following the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage nationwide. Davis claimed that her religious convictions prevented her from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The state responded by passing a law that no longer require clerks to sign their names to the license. “Kentucky Bows to Clerk Kim Davis and Changes Marriage License Rules,” The Los Angeles Times, December 23, 2015, accessed September 26, 2016,

[8] Pascoe, 217-18.

[9] Ibid., 218.

[10] Ibid., 186, 204.

[11] Ibid., 284.

[12] Ibid., 303-04.

[13] Ibid., 132-33.