Originally created 03/28/04

Interracial couples often have to face subtleties of racism



Bart and Marcella Harper have a running joke between them. It goes, "Them's yo' people."

When they watch white people jumping out of helicopters and eating bugs on Fear Factor, Mrs. Harper says, "Them's yo' people."

When they saw on a morning talk show that a group of unemployed black people wanted to form a union, Mr. Harper said, "Them's yo' people."

Mr. Harper, who is white, and Mrs. Harper, who is black, have been married for nine years, have three children and live in a comfortable middle-class neighborhood in Martinez. They made adjustments to their different skin tones a long time ago and now think little of it, other than to chuckle about it.

"God didn't say just love white people or just love black people," said Mrs. Harper, 37.

Still, interracial couples in the Augusta area say not everyone has gotten over romantically involved blacks and whites.

People do double takes when they see them in restaurants and grocery stores.

Strangers make rude comments. Waiters and flight attendants give them less-than-friendly service.

Parents talk earnestly to them about how hard life will be for them and their children.

A citywide poll commissioned last year by The Augusta Chronicle suggests that while most people don't have a problem with mixed couples, resistance lingers, particularly among older whites.

Sixty percent of 400 randomly selected respondents said they approved of mixed-race dating and mixed-race marriage. Of the 153 people who didn't approve, 66 percent were white, and 55 percent were age 50 or older.

Fifty-two percent of all whites polled said they disapproved, while only 27 percent of blacks disapproved.

Mixed couples say disapproval doesn't come out as overt racism, but in subtle airs that can be hard to pinpoint.

"People don't come straight out and tell you how they feel to your face. It's in how they look at you," said Carlton Walters, a black Hispanic married to Michelle, who is white.

How mixed-race couples are treated can be seen as one barometer of a community's racial tolerance. Maria P.P. Root, a Seattle clinical psychologist and author of Love's Revolution: Interracial Marriage, said acceptance is increasing throughout the country but that interracial couples still get noticed, especially in the South.

"Demographically, it's a different relationship," Dr. Root said.

'It's aggravating'

Antione Jones and Priscilla Dixon are like a lot of young couples planning the rest of their lives together. They see children in their future, but they're holding off on marriage until Mr. Jones' new business picks up.

They met four years ago at a car show. Ms. Dixon, 24, said her mother was fine with her dating a black man until they became serious. Her mother explained that society will treat them and their children differently, Ms. Dixon said.

However, Ms. Dixon said she suspects her mother's reservations have as much to do with economics as with race. Mr. Jones, 26, is an auto customizer and a partner in a fledgling custom shop in Columbia County.

For the most part, Mr. Jones and Ms. Dixon said, they've been treated well in Augusta because they hang around other people who are in interracial relationships, or people who don't mind them. It's the people they don't know who give them trouble.

On a recent trip to the Augusta Mall, they passed a group of black teenagers who snickered, "Look at her. Look at him. She's not his type."

They said they try to avoid displays of affection in public. That always seems to intensify the staring and the rude comments.

"It's aggravating," Mr. Jones said. "You'd think people would get over it. It gets old. It makes you not want to go out."

Chloe Malone, 54, is among whites who do not approve of black-white relationships, and she has posted messages on The Chronicle's online forum saying so. Though she said she gets along with most black people, Ms. Malone, who lives in south Augusta, said she was raised to believe in separate but equal and thinks there are too many cultural and physical differences between the races.

When she sees interracial couples in public, Ms. Malone said, she ignores them, but often she and her fiancé talk about it.

"I know you can't help who you love, but you should still stay within your race," she said.

Welcomed in Augusta

Augusta City Manager George Kolb and his wife, Sandy, perhaps the city's most prominent interracial couple, said they've been welcomed into the community since they arrived in Augusta in 2001. Mr. Kolb is black, and Mrs. Kolb is white.

The two met while working in Albion, Mich. They also lived in Richmond, Va., and they said they've encountered fewer negative comments in the South than in the North, although it may be that people in the South are less open about their feelings.

However, they did recall an incident at an Augusta gasoline station. A man looked in their car, saw they were a couple and said, "That's disgusting."

The Kolbs said grocery clerks sometimes ring them up separately, not realizing they're together.

And they get stares in restaurants.

"I don't know if it's that, or that people know me," said Mr. Kolb, 55.

Mrs. Kolb is a member of the Blue Ribbon Committee, a panel created by the city to promote racial understanding. She said she doesn't dwell on what other people think of her marriage.

"I think if people would get to know each other, they'd find that a lot of these differences that they think are there - there are no differences," said Mrs. Kolb, 54. "What often are referred to as racial problems are really people problems."

Changing attitudes

The Kolbs and other couples know that not long ago their experience in Georgia would have been a lot different. Thirty-seven years ago, interracial marriage was illegal in 16 states, including Georgia and South Carolina.

People who married outside their race faced jail time, but mostly they were left alone to live on the margins of society so long as they lived quietly, said Rachel Moran, a professor at the University of California School of Law in Berkeley.

Anti-miscegenation laws were often invoked in civil disputes. After a death, a surviving partner could lose his or her home and assets if other relatives challenged the union as invalid.

A 1967 U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down anti-miscegenation laws, which still existed mostly in Southern states. The case that brought the change involved a couple literally dragged from their bed in Virginia, then banned from the state.

Renee Romano, the author of Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America and an associate professor of history and black studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, said race mixing remained taboo in the South during the 1970s because it had been illegal for so long. Couples faced harassment, job loss and, in some cases, violence.

A lot of them left the South, Dr. Romano said.

"The general pattern seems to be that interracial couples, still today even, have a harder time in the South than they do elsewhere," she said.

According to statistics from the 2000 U.S. Census, interracial couples comprise less than 2 percent of married couples in the country. There are 1,047,000 married interracial couples and 165,000 unmarried interracial couples living together in the United States.

Black-white couples make up 35 percent of interracial married couples. Sixty-three percent are white-Asian.

In a Gallup poll taken the year after the 1967 Supreme Court decision, more than three-quarters of respondants disapproved of marriages between whites and blacks.

The most recent Gallup poll on the subject, taken in 1997, found a 77 percent approval rating for interracial marriage among blacks and a 61 percent approval rating among whites.

Psychologist Dr. Root attributes the growing acceptance, in part, to media images of mixed relationships - from TV shows such as In the Heat of the Night to movies such as The Bodyguard.

"Some people really swallow the lead of what's the popular attitude, and popular attitude is increasingly - particularly for young people - toward acceptance," Dr. Root said.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.