"What Are You?" A Legacy of Laws of Segregation

Laws against race-mixing have left psychological monuments all over America.

Posted Feb 07, 2018

Laws influence the psychology of citizens. Plenty of research in social psychology has been done to make the connection between how people think about social life and the laws of the land. Demonstrations of that link are found in the journal Law & Human Behavior and in long-standing research traditions under the headings of Procedural justice, Equity-theory and Social dominance theory.

Understanding the link between law and human psychology is important because that link explains why when you put intergroup tension into the law, those laws have long-lasting effects on interpersonal psychology (1). When you allow intergroup anxieties to be put into law, if you later get rid of that law, it still leaves a psychological legacy that influences our social interactions.

I, a black man, grew up in the Jim-Crow South of legally enforced racial segregation. I did not and could not go to school with white kids of my own age because it was against the law. About the role of law, Gene Smith, editorial writer for the Fayetteville Observer (2) put it this way:

“The Klan didn’t make it all but impossible for 20th-century blacks to vote in Mississippi or bar nonwhites from public universities. The law did that. In 1835, the N.C. General Assembly, not the KKK, decided that free blacks and Native Americans were becoming too numerous and should no longer be allowed to vote. Slavery, black codes, Jim Crow, segregation—all of it was codified and dutifully enforced.”

But with clear and rightful adherence to the U.S. Constitution, through legal means of Supreme Court decisions and new congressional legislation (Civil Rights Act; Voting Rights Act), we Americans got rid of those unjust immoral laws. Yet the psychological legacy of those laws is still with us.

American’s current anxiety (3) about our growing neo-diversity is a remnant of the laws that kept people of different color away from general interaction with each other, or only in safe white-superior, black-inferior social interactions.  Eliminating those laws, we have brought ourselves into our current (evolving) neo-diversity; this time and circumstance where each of us has some occasion to encounter and interact with people from many different, racial, ethnic, religious, sex-of-person, bodily-condition, gender-identity groups. Yet with so much of our psychology tethered to a past of law-enforced segregation and psychology, having to interact on an equal footing with people “…not like me” creates anxiety.

Keep in mind that American laws of racial segregation, were not just about who could go to school with whom. American apartheid also prohibited “race-mixing” in every possible dimension of social life. “Anti-miscegenation” laws prohibited interracial marriage until the 1967 Loving vs Virginia Supreme Court decision struck down those legal ‘racial purity’ statutes across the land.

In the Loving case, with a unanimous voice, the U.S. Supreme Court said,

“Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival...To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”

Yet fifty years later, interracial dating and marriage are still frowned upon by too many people in America. In 2009, a Louisiana justice of the peace refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple. Why? Aside from the fact that there can be no good nor certainly legal reason for refusing the couple, the justice of the peace said he would not issue the marriage license “…out of concern for any children the couple might have.” (4)

Now that’s an old one. “What about the children?” As if being born from an interracial couple dooms the child to some horrible existence. As I say to my students, “…what about the children? Maybe the child might become President of the United States…the way mixed-race Barack Obama did.”

Have no doubt, there is more going on than any genuine concern for “…the children.”  Laws against interracial marriage were also set up to avoid creating difficulty of identifying people by skin-color. When two people of different skin-color have children, the color of their offspring may not fit clearly into a stereotype of the group members. Given the history of race in America, where people were led to believe we could always identify who was black and who was white, not being able to do so creates an interaction situation filled with racial uncertainty.

With today’s increase in interracial dating, marriage and child-bearing, “Who are among the ‘we’ and who are among the ‘they’” becomes the neo-diversity anxiety-provoking question. Neo-diversity is the current interpersonal situation of America in which we have moved from being segregated by color to having to interact with people not like us on any number of group dimensions.

Part of that neo-diversity situation also is that we cannot quickly identify other people’s group membership just by their look. But given our history of using skin color, that was also put into laws, not being able to rely on “…the look of a person” can cause some to experience an intense psychological discomfort during the interaction. And to settle themselves in the interaction, without thinking some people simply blurt out the question, “…what are you?”

Over the years of my teaching, any number of my mixed-race college students have written about having this experience. December, 2017, one such student submitted her true story that went this way:

“…we moved to North Carolina. My first day of 7th grade, I faced one of the most embarrassing interactions so far in front of a group of people. My teacher, Ms. L, asked me to stand in front of the class to tell them a little bit about myself.

“Hi my name is J-M and I want to be a psychologist like my mom and that means I need to be in middle school and high school here…”

After a long pause, Ms. L replied, “Where did you move from Miss M?” (She mispronounced my name). So I replied, “Its M and Tampa, but before that I lived in 29 Palms, California and before that was Virginia, and I was actually born in North Carolina but I don’t remember it.”

“Well you’ve certainly moved around a lot”, she said, “You have such beautiful olive skin, where is your family from?”

“Up-state New York!” I replied without hesitation.

“I mean what are you? Mexican? Indian?... your ethnicity? Your last name is different from normal…” She trailed off.

I could feel my face turning red and I stuttered that I was…”

Remember, this is an interaction between a teacher and a seventh-grade student; an adult and a thirteen-year-old. Indeed, when it comes to the possibility of being taken over by neo-diversity anxiety “who are the ‘we’ and who are the ‘they’”, there are no innocent.

No human being should ever be asked, “what are you?” The problem was not the student’s genetic make-up; the problem was with that teacher who felt it was absolutely necessary to know this child’s race.

Before the final exam in my “Interdependence and Race” course, all of my students have to put into writing what they consider to be their most intense interpersonal-intergroup experience. Then for the final exam, each student has to analyze that experience. For this student, her intense interpersonal-intergroup interaction was this “what are you” moment. And she analyzed what happened using concepts she learned in my class. At the conclusion of her analysis J-M wrote:

“The first time I heard the question ‘what are you?’ was in front of a classroom of new students, in a new state, in 7th grade. Since then I’ve gotten many questions and assumptions about my ethnicity from people eager to place me in a group. The embarrassment associated with this interaction, was the start of my negative experience with neo-diversity making this the most intense interpersonal-intergroup interaction I have experienced.”

That is the other troubling part of this neo-diversity anxiety driven interaction dynamic. The person being asked is psychologically hit by the question, “…what are you?” My student still remembers her experience as a 7th grader and still feels its sting.

Laws matter in the psychology of a nation. Laws that separate us from each other will always leave a legacy, a monument to that time of arbitrary separation. We would do well to keep that in mind as we hear of the laws being considered for enactment that are really potential laws designed only to keep some citizens from feeling uncertainty and discomfort in their everyday social interactions.


1. Moe, J.L., Nacoste, R.W., & Insko, C.A. (1981).  Belief versus race as determinants of discrimination: A study of adolescents in 1966 and 1979.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 1031-1050.

2. Smith, Gene (2013, June 11). Medgar Evers: Lost in a search for the American Dream, Fayetteville Observer

3. 'Very anxious': Is America scared of diversity? By Tony Dokoupil, Senior Staff Writer, NBC News (10/15/2013) (http://nbcpolitics.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/10/15/20961149-very-anxious-is-america-scared-of-diversity?lite)

4. Interracial couple denied marriage license; La. justice of the peace cites concerns about any children couple might have. Associated Press, Oct. 15, 2009 (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/33332436/ns/us_news-race_and_ethnicity/)