Anti-Miscegnation Laws and Its Relationship with Interracial Crime Disparity
Updated: Jun 21, 2021
Nine years before it went to the Supreme Court, Richard and Mildred Loving were legally married in D.C. in 1958. They were sentenced to one year in prison for not abiding to Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law and applying for a marital license out of state. Their sentence was suspended; instead, they were ordered to leave Virginia and not return together for 25 years.
Though this type of prejudice was overturned and banned, it is a sentiment that held even after the Supreme Court’s decision, which is evident in criminal cases involving black men and white women.
The high frequency and severity of punishment of black males today for crimes in connection with white women represent the disproportionate effect the judicial system conveys. In “The Effect of Sexual Stratification by Race on Official Reactions to Rape,” Gary D. LaFree examined a study that looked at the effect of race composition on processing decisions for 881 sexual assaults in a large, midwestern city.
Results from the study showed that, compared to other defendants, black men who assaulted white women received more serious charges and longer sentences and were more likely to have their cases filed as felonies, receive executed sentences, and be incarcerated in the state penitentiary. Meanwhile, black men who assaulted white women were no more likely than other suspects to be arrested or found guilty.
Using data analysis, this study outlines the scope of severe punishment that black males uniquely encounter today in the judicial system. The severity of the punishment is further highlighted against the related fact that black men are neither less nor more likely to engage in rape.
In an article for the Montana Innonce Project, a particular quote from Martenzie Johnson written in an article for The Undefeated is highlighted: “Whether it’s a woman in Michigan falsely claiming that a group of black men kidnapped, beat and raped her; another woman claiming a black man kidnapped her 3-year-old and 14-month-old sons (whom she actually killed); the infamous Amanda Knox accusing a black man of the heinous murder she was initially convicted of; or even a man claiming that black men stabbed his wife to death (whom he actually killed).”
In this instance, the initial story was believable because of the troubling belief that a black man is capable of such a thing. As Martenzie Johnson says, “It’s because we’ve always been told this is what black men do.” In each instance, the story gained traction not only because it involved a black man but also because the victim was white—in almost all cases, a white female.
In Devil in the Grove, Gilbert King chronicles the grave injustice suffered by four young African Americans whose vision for a brighter future was cut short when a seventeen-year-old girl cried rape. King underscores how during this time (1949), justice was impossible because the more dominant race occupied both civil and societal powers. Willis V. McCall, a violent local sheriff, pursued the four young black men on little evidence simply because it was a white girl that had cried rape. The girl’s name was Norma Padgett.
Notably, word spread like wildfire even before the advent of the Internet. Before the day’s end, the Ku Klux Klan had arrived, burned the homes of many African Americans, and joined in the pursuit of these men—not to bring them before their accuser but to lynch them. This case became known as “The Groveland Four.”
King relays a chilling story that illustrates how the justice system discriminates against black men—in ways that are almost unbelievable to us today: “They tried to make me say that I had been with the group of fellows that raped a white woman,” Samuel Shepherd, one of the African American men blamed for the crime, said.
He continues to say, “It was terrible the way I was whipped, there was just knots all over me. They said they were not going to stop whipping me until I said that I was the one. I kept telling them I was in Orlando where I was. Finally, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I said yes.”
This instance demonstrates that there was zero concern for justice. The simple fact was that a white woman had accused four black men of rape. Nothing else mattered. It is as if a more basic law exists that supersedes the belief that all people have equal value and inherent dignity. That law operates according to the general superiority of whites over blacks. More so, that law assumes black men are guilty—irrespective of what the evidence suggests—in cases involving white women.
Meanwhile, juries have an oppressive effect on black criminal defendants. “The Case for Black Juries” highlights how in the South, a black person accused of a serious crime against a white victim is statistically the most likely to suffer the death penalty. This study confirms the above proposition, namely that there is (at best) a double standard.
On some level, the judicial system does seek to address crimes. Yet, it would be naïve to suppose that the same system operates for all people. Two people can commit the same crime, but what dictates their punishment is not a single law but the color of their skin.
It is also important to draw more attention to how various television news outlets portray and overrepresent black men as perpetrators of crime. A related finding puts the above conclusion in perspective. According to one statistical study from the New York City Police Department, African American suspects accounted for 54 percent of murder cases, 55 percent of theft cases, and 49 percent of assaults. Nevertheless, the evening news programs identified African American suspects in 68 percent of murder stories, 80 percent of theft stories, and 72 percent of assault stories.
Similarly, the same news outlets are underreporting white crime. Coupled with the number of black convictions related to crimes involving white women, this misrepresentation continues the legacy that black people pose a unique danger to a peaceful society. Given that the general populace trusts the news, they inevitably imbibe the belief that the majority of black people are dangerous. In addition, this presentation reinforces the prejudiced belief that certain people groups and races are inherently more violent and prone to criminal behavior.
The effects of such misrepresentation have concrete consequences. For instance, suppose a woman (of any race) is walking home from work later in the evening. Unexpectedly a man in casual clothes walks behind her. Would she feel safer if that man were white? Would she feel endangered if the man were black, all the more if he is wearing a hoodie?
Our brains essentially make neurological associations to function in society. For instance, if a person sees cloudy skies, without thought he will pick up an umbrella because of the basic association between clouds and rains. For many people this action is not the product of formal instruction but conditioning.
Similarly, when people—women in particular—are regularly exposed to news media that correlate black people with dangerous crimes, they imbibe this belief. In turn, they not only engage in presumptuous behavior (in the example above, the woman might walk faster) but might be biased to interpret their observations with these preset associations.
Another important question related to this final observation (of greater coverage for crimes involving black men and white women) is “white normativity,” the idea that white people in general hold a special place in society. White women play the same role as unicorns in Harry Potter: they represent pristine beauty that must not be tainted by evildoers. When they suffer harm, then severe punishment is in order. This idea of white women occupying an exalted role is not mere speculation.
Sarah Stein once wrote, “As a western society, we have been culturally overexposed to the blonde, Caucasian female as the archetypal image of innocence through art, literature, and other media platforms [....] It was discovered primarily that blonde, Caucasian female are portrayed in a more positive and innocent manner by the media, and also receive a higher caliber of investigation into their disappearance than their Caucasian counterparts with varying hair colors and minorities.”
Sarah Stein’s study underscores not just special treatment from the media but also from law enforcement. Additionally, various other studies demonstrate that when the news covers crimes involving white women, they focus on their attractiveness, youthfulness, and overall usefulness to their immediate communities especially as mothers and daughters. In stark contrast, coverage of black or Hispanic women focuses on the victims’ troubled and questioning pasts, abusive boyfriends, and poor decisions.
Society as a whole still rejects interracial couples in overt and covert ways functionally continuing anti-miscegenation. The idea that all people have equal and inherent value fails to hold true in legal and societal structures with regards to how black and Hispanic people are treated in comparison to their white counterparts.