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Viewpoints: Legacy of Loving: 50 years after landmark court ruling, interracialism is becoming normalized, but work remains

By E. Dolores Johnson 


June 12 marked the 50th anniversary of Richard and Mildred Loving’s victory in the 1967 Supreme Court case against Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws. In that judgment, the court found the marriage of a black woman to a white man to be legal for the first time, nullifying all 16 remaining felony state laws. That landmark decision wiped out the last of a once all-time high of 42 such laws that appeared in America in the early 18th century.

The Lovings ignored the law prohibiting mixed-race marriage when they drove over the state line to Washington, D.C., in 1958 for their legal marriage ceremony. Upon their return home, Virginia gave them a choice of punishments for their crime: prison time or 25 years of banishment from the state.

Like the Lovings, my parents skirted Indiana’s anti-miscegenation law and married, but they did it on June 19, 1943, 24 years before the Supreme Court case. My white mother and black father ran to Buffalo to legally marry in secret, and lived there in hiding from her white family for 36 years. Before anyone in Indianapolis knew they were involved, they ran from doing prison time and the horror of my father possibly being lynched for having a white woman in that Ku Klux Klan territory. There was compassion in their decision, too. They hoped to spare her family the certain disgrace that would attach to her action. When Mama could not be found after her “vacation” ruse, the police declared her a victim of foul play and closed the case.

My parents’ belief that love and decency was what mattered in a spouse, not race, cost them dearly. They concealed the existence of Mama’s white family from my brothers and me lest their secret got out. They hid their marriage from employers lest they lose their jobs. They shouldered the rejection of people in the street, recoiling at the sight of us. They grappled with the “honorary Negro” identity the ghetto neighbors gave Mama, signaling acceptance for what amounted to her losing white privilege.

When my brothers and I were born in Buffalo, our birth certificates read “Negro,” an identity my parents never equivocated on. There was no choice back then, in the time of the one drop rule, no permission to be half-white. In fact, in 1958 a Pew research study made our status clear. I was already 10 when 96 percent of Americans said race mixing was wrong.

Of course, the remnants of slavery and white supremacy were at the bottom of such thinking. For centuries, American white women were considered the paragon of virtue, the key to future racial purity and white power. So any open mixing with blacks was thought an abomination. But not the rape of subordinated black women, who bore the children white men fathered and then denied.

Since the 1960s, when civil rights laws eliminated the legal basis of segregation and separate but equal, a growing portion of our country has graduated from the notion that minorities are inferior. People have learned firsthand what intelligence, worth and beauty can be found in “the other” by getting to know one another. Friendships and marriages ensued.

Now, 50 years after Loving, Americans have more empathy for people marrying whomever they love. Census reports show that the mixed-race population grew at three times the single-race population between the last two counts. They predict that the self-declared count of over 7 million mixed-race citizens in 2010 will grow to 20 percent of Americans by 2050. That’s about the size of our Hispanic population today.

The Loving train has left the station. And it’s not the steam engine my mother fled Indiana on back in the ’40s, but a high-speed transport heading toward a browner America.

Today’s superstar mixed-race people are widely admired. Barack Obama, though self-identified as black, was elected president twice. America loves Derek Jeter, Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) and Alicia Keys for the extraordinary talents they bring to our culture, while their parentage is of little note.

But it’s not only the rich and famous reshaping the country’s attitudes. Race mixing has become a recognizable part of the landscape near you, too. Like the new husband your cousin Jessica brought to dinner last Thanksgiving, or the couple sitting two church pews ahead of you, or the ambiguously colored kid with tightly curled hair in class with your second-grader.

In fact, the onetime alienation and shame of the tragic mulatto portrayed in “Imitation of Life” has given way to an authenticity many mixed-race people feel in who they are. Some live as bridge builders between the races, representing hope in our shared humanity. And if you ask them what race has to do with their families, many will say it means nothing. How could race be important when it comes to loving one’s own precious child or parents? They tell me race mixing usually becomes an issue when others make it one.

“We don’t think about being a mixed couple,” a professional Boston couple told me, “until somebody else brings it up.”

That’s what my parents said when I asked why they never talked about their mixing.

“Marriage is hard enough,” Mama replied, “without dragging that foolishness into it.”

Richard Loving simply sent word to the Supreme Court that he loved his wife.

Couples get together where they work, study, play and live side by side. In 1943, my handyman father walked into the company mail room where my mother was the clerk. She found him solid, handsome and looking for marriage, just as she was. He found her the sweetest woman he’d ever seen.

Other interracial couples told me how they met.

“We sat across from each other at the same desk at work,” a couple in their 20s said.

“We met at a Catholic college and found we were so rooted in the same beliefs, race was the least of our considerations,” said a black woman in her 50s in North Carolina.

“Our kids grew up in a white suburb, with white classmates, neighbors and dates, so who did we think they’d marry?” said one of three black women in my book club whose adult children married white.

Millennials want to know: What’s the big deal? Especially those living in urban areas and college communities like Buffalo, on the East and West Coasts and border states, where census maps show interracial in the largest numbers.

“Mixed race people are old news,” a middle-aged white man in Rhode Island told me. “We moved on to same-sex rights years ago.”

But of course it’s not as simple as that.

Blacks and other minorities who want to preserve their cultures, and those who say being part black (substitute any minority) means people treat you only as black (minority), advise their children to marry their own kind.

“Don’t bring a white girl home, son,” they warn. It’s an old story. People hold onto what’s comfortable. But boundaries have always blurred in America, across religion, ethnicity and socioeconomic class. And so it is now across race.

Mixed-race people describe themselves in different ways. Some carry authentic mixed pride, while others identify only with the minority community where they find acceptance. Or they claim both simultaneously. Or, like the half Vietnamese-half white Harvard senior told me proudly, he’s in the model Asian minority, and therefore about as white as mixed can be. No matter which identity they claim, many will still encounter the stranger who peers closely, asking: “What are you?”

Mixed-race parents who understand the existential fears that separate the races keep their eyes open. Their brown children are being raised with warnings. Comply during police interactions that could be triggered by your skin color, lest you be beaten, jailed or charged for something. Know and take pride in your roots, but be prepared for the suspicions some whites carry that you somehow threaten them or are not equal.

So no, we are not in a postracial society. That fictive dream has been refuted too many times by the disastrous mire of police officers shooting black children, the need to shout in the street that “Black Lives Matter” and racial epithets hurled at Major League Baseball players on the field.

Moving forward on America’s always twisting road of identity, interracialism is becoming normalized. Mixed-race people are cohering around their voice, even throwing annual parties that honor their gene pools, just as the Irish do on St. Patrick’s Day.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Loving decision, perhaps you will take a moment to consider how people living the best of two or more cultures can enrich our future. And to understand it’s already happening.

E. Dolores Johnson lives in Cambridge, Mass., and writes about American inter-racialism. Follow her on Twitter @elladolo.

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