Saturday, December 22, 2012

Miscegenation: a non-concept

This is the 149th anniversary of the publication of Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Race, Applied to the American White Man and the Negro, a sham pamphlet by journalists David Goodman Croly and George Wakeman published to discredit the Republicans in the election of 1864. The pamphlet, supposed to be written by an anonymous abolitionist, championed the policy of intermixture between whites and blacks as a solution to the race problem.  It was written plausibly enough that real abolitionists were wary of denouncing it.  

Miscegenation was exposed as a fraud in November 1864, but by that time the word had entered the language. It remains enshrined in dictionaries to this day.

To use the word “miscegenation” uncritically is no different from employing seriously the term “drapetomania,” Samuel Cartwright’s medical term for slaves’ “stealing themselves,” i.e. running away. Both are neologisms giving names to false concepts—stigmatizing and pathologizing phenomena that had not previously had their own names. (The original word for interracial mixing was "amalgamation," which also denoted erasing the line between Federalists and Republicans.) Each term denotes violating an artificial and unjust rule. We don’t use “drapetomania” anymore without quotation marks; neither should we use “miscegenation,” coined just thirteen years later, except to understand the political function of the concept of race.

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