Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Rasmussen reviews Novkov, Racial Union: Law, Intimacy, and the White State in Alabama, 1865-1954

Racial Union: Law, Intimacy, and the White State in Alabama, 1865-1954 by Julie Novkov (University of Michigan Press, 2008) is reviewed by Claire E. Rasmussen, Department of Political Science, University of Delaware for the Law and Politics Book Review. Rasmussen writes:

Julie Novkov’s RACIAL UNION: LAW, INTIMACY, AND THE WHITE STATE IN ALABAMA, 1865-1954 is a compelling narrative about the regulation of interracial intimacy in the state of Alabama, primarily using appellate court rulings. The text provides a careful analysis of the case law to provide a snapshot of race relations in Alabama during the postbellum period. The book will be of much interest to scholars of the intersection of race and law in the United States and provides a window into the rapidly changing cultural constructions of race during this period of time. Novkov’s analysis will also be illuminating for scholars of gender and sexuality, as the text traces the variety of ways that race, gender, and sexuality intersected to produce differing and sometimes surprising legal outcomes. Novkov’s emphasis on the regulation of interracial intimacy highlights the legitimating influence of family law that defines the parameters of acceptable intimate relationships. Novkov uses this insight to demonstrate the ways that white supremacy was crucial in state development and to highlight the contemporary importance of this history including the residue of institutionalized racism and comparisons between bans on interracial marriage and anti-same sex marriage laws.

RACIAL UNION comes on the heels of the publication of several important texts examining the history of racialized legal structures in the United States. The text differs from others, however, in limiting the scope of the analysis to the regulation of interracial intimacy (laws not only against marriage but also regulating adultery, fornication, rape and property) and to an assessment of state rather than national developments. The limited scope enables a nuanced analysis of the development of legal practices in Alabama relative to local politics, as well as unpacking the complexities of race, class, gender, and sexuality within a particular context. Even further, the historical entrenchment of unequal race relations in Alabama calls for an understanding of the ways that white supremacy has influenced legal development. Novkov argues: “Supremacy was a political doctrine, grounded politically on racist beliefs but also reflecting a particular view of political power and the state’s obligations. Rather than being a simple reflection of racist attitudes, supremacy was emerging in these years as a system for the organization and articulation of governance” (p.72).

The analysis at the state level illuminates the ways that whiteness of citizenship was entrenched within law, culture, and politics in Alabama, using the “normal” family as the baseline for full membership in the political community. Further, while this period of time was tumultuous in terms of the meaning and institutionalization of race, changes in power relations were often motivated by tensions within the white supremacist community, rather than between white supremacists and those who opposed the structure of white power. Indeed, changes in the law were often motivated by the power struggles within the white community and, later, in power struggles playing on and against national politics. Novkov generates a narrative about race in America through reading state-level cases challenging the regulation of interracial intimacy that demonstrates just how deeply entrenched white supremacy was and, perhaps, continues to be.
Continue reading here.