When Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter fell in love in rural Virginia in the 1950s, they had no idea that one day they would become the subjects of a landmark civil rights case. Loving, a white man, and Jeter, a black and Native American woman, grew up together in Central Point, an integrated small town.
At the time they wanted to marry, Virginia—along with dozens of other states—was still under strict anti-miscegenation laws that made it illegal to marry someone of a different race. On June 2, 1958, the Lovings traveled 100 miles to Washington, DC, to wed. However, just a few weeks after the couple had returned to their hometown, they were charged with breaking the state's Racial Integrity Act of 1924 and were thrown in jail. In exchange for a guilty plea, the judge suspended their potential one-year sentence as long as they left the state for 25 years—a difficult deal the Lovings agreed to.
The couple's decade-long fight for their right to be married in the State of Virginia is chronicled in the new movie titled Loving. Directed by Jeff Nichols, the film follows the Lovings' journey all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where the outcome of their 1967 case finally deemed the country's anti-miscegenation laws as unconstitutional.
"I think this case shows how central interracial sex and relationships are to discrimination. You can connect it to the lynchings that occurred after black men were accused of either raping white women, or as was the case with Emmett Till, allegedly whistling at a white women," said Dennis Parker, the racial justice project director at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in New York. "There was something elemental about that type of discrimination."
Even though the story takes place in the midst of the civil rights movement, the focus of Loving is to highlight the unbreakable bond between the couple without getting too deep into the politics. But at a time when protestors are still crowding the streets in the name of equal rights, the story of the Lovings is a reminder of how much work still needs to be done to improve the country's issues with race.
As a mixed-race woman myself, Loving helped put in perspective just how recently interracial marriage was legalized. Less than 50 years ago, the same racist laws the Lovings were fighting against could have kept my own family apart: In the same year that the Lovings' case concluded in the Supreme Court, my father was born to an interracial couple. My grandfather was Filipino and my grandmother was white; in California, where they were married, the anti-miscegenation laws forbade whites from marrying blacks, Asians, and Filipinos until 1948. In other states across the West such as Utah and Wyoming, similar anti-miscegenation laws were on the books until the early 1960s.
Children were a common justification for upholding these laws. In one particular scene in the film, before the couple embarks on their legal battle alongside ACLU-appointed lawyers Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop, Richard (Joel Edgerton) asks how the state could defend such a law. Hirschkop (Jon Bass) explains to them that the state would likely use their mixed race children as a defense: "They believe the children are bastards."
"I think it is not uncommon when people are trying to support what strikes me as an insupportable law like this that they raise these sort of extraneous outside concerns about actually caring about the impact on children," said Parker. "In the wake of school desegregation in the 50s, it was common for school districts to say they were doing it for the protection of black children, because they didn't want them to be overwhelmed when they are suddenly thrown into schools with these white students who are better prepared and smarter."
Unfortunately, this false sense of concern for mixed race children didn't end with the Supreme Court's ruling. As recently as 2009, Keith Bardwell, a justice of the peace in Louisiana, refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple. Bardwell told a local paper that he was not racist, but that he was concerned for the children born from the relationship. These ideas were even ingrained in my biracial father, who had once discouraged me from dating other races by warning me of the discrimination and identity issues my kids would have to face. It's that kind of dangerous thinking that could have prevented my dad and even myself from ever being born.
In 2016, with celebrity couples like Kim Kardashian and Kanye West gracing the covers of magazines like Vogue and a biracial president in the White House, it may seem that interracial relationships are an accepted part of life in the United States—especially since from 2000 to 2010, the US census found that interracial marriages increased from seven percent to 10 percent. But that isn't exactly the case.
"The [Loving v. Virginia] decision voided all those [marriage] laws in the country, but the law stayed on the books in a lot of states. Even though they could not be enforced, they still stayed there, and the last one wasn't removed until 2000 in Alabama," said Parker. "What is interesting is they took a poll to see whether the law should be repealed, and the majority of folks in the state were opposed to repealing the law."
A study published this past July in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that people—even those who don't consider themselves racist—were disgusted by interracial relationships and were more likely to associate the couples with animals than actual humans.
While those results might seem extreme, my own experience as an Asian woman dating a black man has proved that not everyone is tolerant. Even in 2016, my boyfriend and I have to deal with disapproving glances and racial slurs, not to mention the overall fear that we could end up at the wrong place, at the wrong time just because of our race.
Our fears are justified: Just two months ago, a black man and white woman were the victims of an unprovoked attack in Olympia, Washington, stabbed simply for kissing on the street. While Loving tells an uplifting story about one couple's triumph over racism, the reality is that almost 50 years later, many people still hold dangerous views on interracial relationships.
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