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The Author Speaks

Interview With Daniel J. Sharfstein

His powerful new book examines how three American families became white

Q. You suggest that rigid rules about race only increased the number of people transitioning from black to white. Why was that?

A. When rules became more rigid, they were almost always accompanied by rules that subjected African Americans to higher taxes, made it harder for them to own land and increased fear that free African Americans would be returned to slavery. The harder these laws made it to live and to provide for their children, the greater the incentives were to make the move from black to white. Because these lines were being drawn in a way that essentially separated people who looked white from [other] people who looked white, it was impossible to make the line between black and white impregnable.

Q. You also argue that "by discouraging efforts to investigate and uncover individuals' racial backgrounds, the court was making the South safe for segregation."

A. In slander cases like Spencer v. Looney, the court said, "If you accuse someone of being black, it better be right." Lots of white Southerners were vulnerable to these kinds of accusations. And if it were not very difficult to make them, then every time people got mad at each other, there was a possibility that it would wind up being a racial witch hunt. Putting up some obstacles allowed white people to be secure in their racial identity, and, as a result, they could be secure in their support of segregation.

Q. Why were people more tolerant at a community level?

A. Race means something different when you see someone every day. Southern communities and, for that matter, Northern communities, too, had many reasons to think about race in very broad terms. At the same time, they still had neighbors whom they relied on during hard times. And eventually neighbors whose children had married their children. I would suggest that Americans were amply capable of treating racially different people as equals, but they chose not to, and this is one of the great tragedies of American history.

Q. You say most of the descendants you interviewed already knew something of their ancestry. Were there exceptions?

A. There were a few.

Q. How did they react?

A. For people who had just learned about it, and for people 10 years into digesting this information, there was a huge range of reactions, from denial to real fascination and engagement with history. For most of their lives, being white meant never really having to think much about race issues; you could hear about something relating to African Americans or civil rights on the news, and you could tune it out. Now, they say, this history makes them realize that these are their stories, too.

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.

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