This summer, my colleague Jack and I had the life-changing opportunity to work on a research project with George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology and the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights Dr. Dorothy E. Roberts. As the author of over 100 scholarly articles and book chapters, Dr. Roberts’ past work and writings focused heavily on reproductive justice, structural inequalities, bioethics, and child welfare. Her three most recent titles—Killing the Black Body, Shattered Bonds, and Fatal Invention—deeply investigate the American government’s power over the reproductive rights of women of color, lack of representation of black children in the U.S. foster care system, and the ways that racial conceptions are used to identify and manipulate bodies in politics and medicine, respectively. Her work asks heavy questions about racial prejudice and discrimination in the United States and targets contemporary institutions that continually perpetuate such injustices. She is an adamant advocate of reproductive and human rights for minority persons, actively working with professionals in various academic spaces as well as engaging in discourse with others on social media and in conferences on contentious areas of bioethical research.
Now, Dr. Roberts is working alongside those research and policy interests to research and carry out her next book project on a subject that is influenced by institutions but much more personal: interracial marriage and racial equality in Chicago, Illinois from 1937-67. She became especially interested in the work of her late father—Robert E.T. Roberts, an anthropologist at Roosevelt University in Chicago—as she kept making discoveries about his work and life as a researcher. Through this project, Dr. Roberts has discovered that her mother, Iris Roberts, met Robert Roberts as a research assistant for his book project that never ended up being published as a book. Robert Roberts was researching black-white marriages in the United States for decades in an effort to show how interpersonal relations tackle racial prejudices, break socially segregated boundaries, and catalyze an American society aiming towards racial equality. Dr. Roberts has been working diligently to tell the stories of her family, the families they have researched, and her own experiences growing up with this project and uncovering new layers of it with each phase of the book project. She enlisted my colleague Jack and myself to conduct secondary research on the subjects Robert Roberts was interested in as well as carry out archival research on the children of interracial couples in Chicago using the boxes of interviews conducted by Robert Roberts’ team and inherited by Dr. Roberts.
Conducting secondary research on race relations in Chicago for the time period was marked by unexpected twists and turns. As I navigated scholarly search engines and read books written by Robert Roberts’ colleagues as well as those who investigated race from different lenses, I learned a few things: First, Robert Roberts was being very novel in his exploration of interracial marriage as a sign of progress for diversifying not just identities but perspectives and cognizance of differences felt by members of different assigned races in America. Second, there are surprising factors that weave into the exploration of why people choose to marry out of their race and how those marriages operate in a majorly socially segregated country—namely, in a city which has abolished anti-miscegenation law in the late 19th century. For instance, there were articles about legal cases from the time where custody battles over the children of interracial couples or lawsuits involving such couples utilize insanity or mental disorder in an integral way—suggesting that people would have to be mentally impaired in order to consent to an interracial marriage. Institutionally, different legal frameworks were used as a proxy for police action against interracial couples—such as vagrancy laws in cities that have outlawed anti-miscegenation statutes. Religion played a powerful role as well; Catholic opposition to black members joining the church—which was important at the time, as many black people in interracial marriages were likely to be married to Catholic Southern or Eastern Europeans as a result of American political class distinctions at the time—as well as the Baha’i faith’s tolerant attitude towards interracial couples contributed to much of people’s identities at the time period.
In applying this acquired knowledge of the social factors surrounding interracial marriages in Chicago to reading through the research files left by Robert Roberts, I was able to make out a clear impact of discriminatory factors such as religious intolerance and residential housing segregation on the places where interracial couples lived and the public spaces they would enter together. Whether it was meeting over shared occupations or through the Communist party, converting to different faiths or moving across the globe to be able to marry, going out together to Black-and-Tan clubs where mixed-race dancing was welcomed, or not going out together at all, interracial couples were influenced by the world they entered. By coupling the discovery of couples’ unique experiences with my previous understanding of the institutional functions of their world, I was able to hone in on the ability to actively listen and learn to the experiences of others—which will undoubtedly impact my education at Penn greatly as a sociology major and fine arts minor. Validating and respecting the unique circumstances of each family interviewed by Robert Roberts’ team showed me the power that society held over people in love.
However, I also saw how interracial marriages impacted the world around them on a foundational level. Through explorations of mixed-race identity and white-passing appearances, interracial couples tackle racial determinism and social boxes in the United States through their resulting children navigating racial borders and color lines in their own respective spaces. I will leave it to one of those children, Shirley Henderson, to explore this effect in her own words: “Sometimes… I make a point of stressing my mixed percentage. I vary how I identify myself with the point I’m making. I’d never say I was white, but it is sometimes interesting to let people think you’re what you aren’t, as they then say things and reveal attitudes they otherwise wouldn’t. Then you let slip and watch the consternation.”