Georgetown Law Professor Sheryll Cashin’s Book Explores “Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America”

August 22, 2017

For the 50th anniversary of the landmark 1967 Supreme Court decision, Georgetown Law Professor Sheryll Cashin has published Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy (Beacon Press).

Loving v. Virginia, popularized in a 2011 documentary and a 2016 film, officially ended the ban on interracial marriage in America. The case was pursued by the ACLU on behalf of Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple arrested in their bedroom in July 1958 for the felony crime of marrying; a judge banished them from Virginia for 25 years.

The couple was represented in the Supreme Court by Georgetown Law alums Philip J. Hirschkop (L’64) and Bernard Cohen (L’61), both ACLU lawyers. Incidentally, Georgetown’s connections to the groundbreaking case have continued well into the 21st century — Nick Kroll (C’01) played Hirschkop in the 2016 Oscar-nominated film, and Elisabeth Haviland James (F’99) produced the Peabody Award-winning documentary “The Loving Story.”

In her book, Cashin explores how laws against race mixing were a crucial tool in constructing white supremacy and fortifying the development and spread of American capitalism. She also discusses how “ardent integrators” in every era of U.S. history have destabilized fixed notions of race and identity. She argues that today, there is an “increasingly ascendant coalition of the culturally dexterous — whites and people of color who cross different cultures.” The daughter of civil rights activists, Cashin teaches Race and American Law at Georgetown Law. A Q&A is below.

This book is about more than Mildred and Richard Loving — it is the history of interracial intimacy in America and the threat to white supremacy. How did the book come about?

I teach the Loving case in a course called Race in American Law; that course covers the history of race relations, and law plays a huge role. And the 50th anniversary of the case was coming. I thought that it would be a kind of refreshing angle by which I could reflect on where we’ve been and where I think we’re going on race relations.

You write in the Introduction that “as a daughter of civil rights activists and a descendant of slaves and slaveholders,” you “wrote this book from a personal perspective.” Why was it important to you to tell this story?

I was born into an activist family and my parents’ activism was always intentionally building power with allies. My parents were part of the black leadership that organized the sit-in movement in Huntsville, Alabama, and they intentionally recruited white liberals to march with them. My father founded an independent party — it wasn’t the Black Panther Party, it was a party reflecting a kind of robust multiracial politics.

And so I’ve always been interested in people who intentionally subvert color lines. I had a subversive childhood, and I’ve always been sort of aware of the artificiality of [color lines]. And so for me, personally, I thought it would be interesting to tell the story not just of the construction of white supremacy, which I think some people are familiar with, but a lesser told narrative of what I call “ardent integrators” who come together for love and for activism. Sometimes it’s love, sometimes it is activism, sometimes it is both. And I feature a number of people in the book who represent that.

You wrote about your family in The Agitator’s Daughter. Your activist parents landed you in jail when you were four months old?

I always want to make clear that the police in Huntsville were polite and they actually were more paying attention to protecting the protesters than hurting them. My parents never would have taken a four-month-old baby to a protest if there was going to be any danger. Part of the strategy to get attention for Huntsville’s sit-in movement, because there had been a news blackout, was for my mother to go to this sit-in with me, a four-month-old baby, and with a woman who was eight months pregnant. They were both doctors’ and dentists’ wives…and it got a lot of news. That ended the news blackout…as I said, they were subversive.

Would you consider yourself an activist through your writing?

Absolutely. I write trade books intentionally because I want to reach a broader audience and make them aware of what I have learned through years of reading about and reflecting on race relations. And hopefully inspire people to find allies and join in the fight for making the values of the Fourteenth Amendment real for everyone.

How did you describe the book to publishers? It’s history but also hope?

I was fortunate; Beacon Press published my last book. I thought about trying my hand at fiction…I was using an interracial couple to tell what I thought was an American story. My editor said, What about writing a book about the Loving case? When I reflected on it, I thought that would actually be the perfect vehicle. The book is a history of interracial intimacy in America and how it threatens the ideology of white supremacy. It’s a short history and some future speculation.

And your conclusions?

I argue that interracial intimacy is poised to explode. It’s accelerating, it’s growing at a very rapid pace and through a number of forms of intimacy, not just interracial marriage. People are acquiring what I call cultural dexterity. And that’s the ability to see people of another race or ethnicity, and see and recognize other racial and cultural experiences and accept them. It’s the opposite of colorblindness.

My argument is that with rising interracial intimacy, coupled with other forces, rapid demographic change and the dying off of older generations of whites [who] grew up expecting to be dominant, my speculation is that we’re going to reach a tipping point in which a critical mass of whites — not a majority, a critical mass —accepts the loss of centrality of whiteness in this country. And that when that happens, politics could return to being functional.

I give the example of California. California from the late eighties went from being majority-white to gridlocked to being majority-minority to functional again. They got rid of gerrymandering in that state and it’s fair to say that California has a functioning multiracial democracy in which decisions are made based on facts and the merit of the policy ideas, rather than a clash of worldviews between dexterous and nondexterous people. Right now, the U.S. Congress is captured by this clash of worldviews. We haven’t gone through that transition yet.

The 2016 Loving film — did Hollywood get it right?

You can’t do everything in two hours. It was historically accurate and beautifully told. My only modest criticism is that it somewhat softened the violence-backed regime of white supremacy. You wouldn’t know from the film that a cross was burned on the Lovings’ lawn and that of Mildred’s parents. The regime of white supremacy was violence-backed and dangerous. And you don’t quite get that feeling from that film.

An op-ed by Cashin appeared in the New York Times in June. She also appeared on PBS Newshour and NPR.