It is the solidification of chattel slavery in the late seventeenth-century that ends an earlier period of relative flexibility in sexual relations, by making racial lines more salient than class lines.Later, it is the collapse of slavery that creates a newfound urgency in the taboo of sex between black men and white women and brings about a shift from uneasy white toleration toward increasingly violent intolerance.Early anti-miscegenation statutes--like the 1664 Maryland law enslaving the children of English women who "intermarry with Negro Slaves"--reflected the attitudes of the most politically active segment of the planter elite--attitudes which were only gradually absorbed by many other whites. Similarly, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, lynching, supposedly to protect the purity of white womanhood, was in fact inextricably tied to efforts to suppress populism and interracial labor activities.From the anti-abolitionist mobs of the 1830s that raised the specter of racial amalgamation to the Northern Democrats who coined the term "miscegenation" and accused Republicans of favoring racial intermarriage to the post-World War I nativists who enacted the anti-miscegenation statutes that the Supreme Court overturned in 1967, miscegenation was a highly emotional subject that could be exploited and manipulated for a variety of social and political objectives.While antebellum white southern society did not condone such liaisons, it did exhibit a limited degree of toleration--a toleration that vanished following the Civil War, as southern white men saw their monopoly of political power challenged and the cotton economy collapse.
Only then did violent intolerance replace an uneasy toleration.
In a provocative, deeply-researched study which won the Allan Nevins Prize, Martha Hodes tackles one of the most explosive and potentially sensationalistic subjects a historian can address: interracial sex between southern black men and white women.
Drawing on a remarkable range of legal testimony, personal diaries, and private correspondence, she persuasively argues that the late nineteenth century witnessed an abrupt shift in the South's treatment of such relationships.
After the Civil War, Hodes argues, consensual sex between a black man and a white woman became unimaginable in the white southern mind.
White Southerners conflated black male autonomy with sexual transgressions across the color line and justified terrorism and lynching on the grounds that they were necessary to protect the purity of white womanhood--even though less than a third of all lynchings even involved accusations of sexual assault.
An alternate interpretation might make two points: that ideologies of racism have changed in dramatic ways over time, and, that specific groups have shaped the definitions of and legal controls over "illicit" sexuality.