I'm way behind on this, but I had some thoughts on this that I hadn't seen anyone else saying, so now that I have a moment I'd like to say them. Nicholas Kristof's column in The New York Times a week and a half ago was on interracial couples in American culture and particular in popular media. This generated quite a bit of discussion.
Jonah Goldberg says the one-drop rule is prevalent on the left. I have some evidence for that, I suppose. I grew up thinking Donna Summer had three daughters, one white, one mulatto, and one black. My basis for this was what they look like. One of them has very light hair and blue eyes. (Is this right? This is what I was told, anyway, and thus it's the basis of my judgment at the time.) One of them looks like her mother in terms of skin tone, hair type, and bone structure. The other one looks mixed. As the racial concepts I had been inculcated with worked, the way these three sisters looked determined their race. I had no idea of any sense of a one-drop rule and how it might work. That rule just didn't function in my culture.
Then I studied race in a graduate seminar with a very influential professor who takes the dominant view among philosophers on many race issues. She claimed that all Americans assume the one-drop rule. Since race is just a matter of how people are classified by society, and people use the one-drop rule, this professor insisted that the one-drop rule, though immoral, is the correct rule to classify people. Thus all of Donna Summer's children are black in their racial classification, not one of them is white, and they might be mixed also among particularly enlightened sub-cultures.
All the evidence I have from my students refutes this. In the northeast U.S. there is no one-drop rule, which means those who insist on it are insisting on an immoral classification for no good reason, even given their consideration that we should use the classifications society gives us. I've had one student who, for the sake of shorthand and race-preference benefits, describes herself as black even though her African ancestry is a small part of her highly mixed heritage (including white, Native American, and Latina). The vast majority of my students would say that she's not lying by saying she's black, but they think it's incomplete and thus might see it as dishonest. So I think there's at least something to what Goldberg is saying. [See Sam's post about her reflections on our own kids.]
Kristof's main point is that Hollywood won't portray interracial couples as often as they occur in real life. Goldberg points out in the same post that Kristof has ignored some crucial interracial couples in film and TV, though I don't think Goldberg's critique begins to scratch the surface. Kristof says:
For all the gains in race relations, romance on the big screen between a black man and a white woman remains largely a taboo. Americans themselves may be falling in love with each other without regard to color, but the movie industry is still too craven to imitate life.
Is this even true? He wonders when Reese Witherspoon and Denzel Washington will portray characters who fall madly in love. I'm assuming he doesn't mean those exact actors are required. Do Steve Martin and Queen Latifah (Burning Down the House) count? Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas (Save the Last Dance) may not be of the same level of celebrity, but that's nothing to sneeze at. What about Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry (Die Another Day), or Halle Berry's dual-front romancing of Hugh Jackman and John Travolta in Swordfish? Does Kevin Costner's pairing with Whitney Houston (Bodyguard) count for nothing? This article lists a number of other films and TV shows with interracial couples, including characters played by Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro, and it only goes through 1991! Kristof is just wrong. Interracial couples are common in movies and TV, and in fact that's probably what has led to the increase of interracial couples in reality due to people's coming to see it as more normal from seeing their favorite characters doing it.
If the claim is simply that interracial couples hardly ever appear on screen, Kristof is just wrong. However, if you read him carefully, maybe there is something to what he's saying. He picks Denzel and Reese for a reason. His claim is that we don't see black men and white women on screen as much as we see white men and black women, which means we have on-screen interracial relationships in the reverse pattern of how they more often go in reality. One thing Kristof says here is pretty ridiculous, and in a later post Goldberg takes on the catch-22 argumentation implicit in Kristof's critique of the interracial couples that he acknowledges. Kristof says:
The latest "Guess Who" is about a white man in love with a black woman, and that's a comfortable old archetype from days when slave owners inflicted themselves on slave women.
Right, and even though it's the most uncommon interracial pairing you will find, there's nothing heroic about white men overcoming the standards of beauty they're raised in to find beauty in a black woman. It's simply about conquest of the beast. (John Miller provides an alternative account of why it would be seen as bad.) I wonder if Kristof is the one who can't get beyond the racist stereotypes if he can't see a black woman with a white man without thinking this. What's worse is that portraying black men with white women will be seen to elevate the racist standards of beauty that would lead black men to prefer white women. So you can't win. Kristof says there aren't enough interracial couples being portrayed, but then when people do it, particularly in the combination that happens least often in real life (though it turns out also in the opposite combination), it's racism.
Maybe Kristof is right that we don't see enough major Hollywood black men paired with major Hollywood white women. It may be that white Hollywood execs are too racist to see their white daughters paired up with black men and thus can't tolerate this combination on screen (or they're worried about viewers who would have such fears). It might just be that they simply don't think about the percentage of interracial couples who are black man, white woman as opposed to white man, black woman. On the other hand, they might be unwilling to do what will lead to ridiculous assertions like what Kristof here says in the one film he mentions where he acknowledges a white man, black woman pairing. Yet another possibility, however, is that they realize that white men don't marry black women anywhere near as often as black men marry white women, and they're making a conscious effort to make people more comfortable with couples consisting of white men and black women. Maybe they're giving in to the pressure from the black community that frowns on the practice of black men with white women (on the grounds that the black women won't have anyone left, given that many of the young black men who aren't in prison are with white women). So why again is it immoral to portray white men with black women, given the multitude of motivations and reasons for having more of those than the other way around?
Also, one piece of evidence worth thinking about is how many young celebrities nowadays are of mixed race. These are the products of interracial couples. There are so many that it would be hard to list even the most popular ones, but we can start with Tiger Woods, Halle Berry, Mariah Carey, Vin Diesel, Christina Aguilera, Beyonce Knowles, Derek Jeter, The Rock, Sade, Paula Abdul, Vanessa Williams, Lenny Kravitz, Brooklyn Sudano (My Wife and Kids), Lexa Doig (Andromeda and Stargate: SG-1), Lisa Bonet (The Cosby Show, A Different World, Enemy of the State), Jasmine Guy (A Different World), Cree Summer (A Different World), Rainbow Sun Francks (Stargate: Atlantis), Jessica Alba (Dark Angel, Sin City, Fantastic Four), Catherine Bell (JAG), Maya Rudolph (Saturday Night Live). Some of these people are popular partly because they are of mixed race. Not all of these people are of mixed black-white heritage, but this is an overwhelming phenomenon once you realize the scope of it. It's got to say at least something about people's attitudes toward those couples who produced children that have garned such a fascination. I think it's an understatement to say that today's young people are fascinated with mixed race people.
There are a couple other interesting points at A Face Made 4 Radio. He corrects a mistaken impression some people have given about the famous Kirk-Uhura fake kiss. People claim it created an uproar, but they only received one negative letter over that, and it was a pretty tame letter.
Also, he observes that the military seems to be way ahead of most of the United States with respect to interracial marriage, which is really a separate issue because many college students will date someone they would never marry (whom their parents will never approve of), and even more seem willing to sleep with someone their parents would never even approve of them dating. Interracial couples are far more common at Syracuse University than interracial marriages are among the recent graduates of Syracuse University. That the military is way ahead in interracial marriage is striking. I'd say the same about evangelical Christians of my age group, from my own experience. The two roommates I lived with for most of my college years married people of another racial group, and we know lots of other people who have done the same.