"Loving," Hating and Interracial Relationships

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...full text also available on The Huffington Post

In 1958, a newly married couple, Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving were indicted on charges of violating Virginia's ban on interracial marriages. On January 6, 1959 they pleaded guilty to the charge and were sentenced to one year in jail. However, "the trial judge suspended the sentence for a period of 25 years on the condition that the Lovings leave the State and not return to Virginia together for 25 years." The Lovings challenged this sentence by questioning whether the State of Virginia's actions to prevent and outlaw interracial marriage violated the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The result of this challenge came on June 12, 1967, when Chief Justice Warren delivered the opinion of the Court: "The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy... There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classification violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause. These convictions must be reversed. It is so ordered." In a rare interview with the Associated Press, Jeter-Loving reacted to the verdict by explaining that the victory "was God's work."

More than four decades later, the Lovings would be proud to know that the interracial marriage rate among newlyweds has increased by 300% (reaching an all-time high). To be more concrete, that means approximately 1 in 7 marriages in 2008 was interracial or interethnic. According to the Pew Research Center, this dramatic increase is due to a generational shift that coincides with growing acceptance of interracial relationships and recent immigration patterns.

Professors Teresa Nance and Anita Foeman also attribute this surge to couples' increased attention to the four stages of interracial relationship development. In the first stage, racial awareness, partners reconcile inconsistent beliefs between themselves and with larger racial groups. They will often ask themselves things like "how would my partner feel if (s)he heard this?" In the second stage, couples learn to cope with discrimination through protective and/or defensive communication skills. In other words, they draw closer as they work through positive and negative experiences that shape their self-images. In the third stage, partners discover and manage their identity as a couple by rethinking and challenging the frames imposed by others. For instance, a white partner might explain that "if you love a person who is black, racism is really intolerable." In the final stage, the relationship is maintained by re-examining the role of race. Successful couples ultimately determine that long-term attraction is based on compatibility and shared vision rather than racial preference or bias.

Though this Saturday marks the 43rd anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, accompanied by a joyful celebration at the Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival in Los Angeles, discrimination against interracial couples persists. As recently as 2009 a New Orleans justice of the peace refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple, Beth Humphrey, 30 and Terence McKay, 32. Keith Bardwell provided this explanation: "I'm not a racist. I just don't believe in the mixing of races that way... I have piles of black friends. They come to my home, I marry them, they use my bathroom. I treat them like everyone else." This explanation sparked a letter from the ACLU to the Louisiana Judiciary Committee, requesting an investigation of Bardwell and recommending "the most severe sanctions available, because such blatant bigotry poses a substantial threat of serious harm to the administration of justice."

With such varied opinions the question remains: Do interracial relationships support or dismantle racism and racist images?

According to Dr. Ulli K. Ryder of Brown University, the answer is both and that "both opinions can be seen clearly in the realm of popular culture." Opinion polls show overwhelming popular support, especially among younger people, for interracial marriage based on celebrity modeling--Robert De Niro and Grace Hightower, Paula Patton and Robin Thicke. In addition, Grey's Anatomy, Gossip Girl, Brothers and Sisters, and Modern Family are among the popular television shows that represent mixed relationships positively. On the other hand, John Mayer's crude comments about avoiding interracial relationships show how deeply history has been shaped by the color line and the ways in which that line continues to segregate us. Then there's Disney's The Princess and the Frog, which garnered criticism for pairing Tiana, its first black princess, with a prince of a different racial background.

A more complex statement is made by Alicia Keys's video Unthinkable (I'm Ready), which explores the gender dynamics of interracial relationships by dramatizing the natures of attraction and societal obstacles over time. Keys's conclusion is, at best, ambiguous because it is unclear whether the couple is able to maintain a shared vision for their relationship in the face of racial prejudice. At worst, her conclusion affirms that interracial relationships are doomed because historical taboos persist in spite of the media's post-racial rhetoric.

So, if Mildred Jeter-Loving was right and the fight for equality is "God's work," then it appears that God's work is as yet unfinished.

IRRs changing the USA