50 years after Loving v. Virginia

June 9th, 2017

When I was five years old, I emigrated from Taiwan to the United States. Growing up, some of my parents’ Asian friends would wonder aloud about whether I would grow up to marry an “American”, which was synonymous with marrying a white person. The comments were always light-hearted, but were also laden with a tacit acknowledgement the ongoing realities of living as first-generation immigrants and of raising their children in an American culture distinct from their own.

In the end, I did marry an “American”, and it seems that I’m not alone. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 17% of all U.S. newlyweds in 2015 had a spouse of a different race or ethnicity, which represents a steady increase of interracial marriages in the U.S. over the past fifty years. The study attributes the growth in interracial marriages to a more diverse population overall that leads to greater interaction amongst persons of different races, and changing public opinions that lead to fewer people opposing interracial relationships and more persons viewing such pairings as good for society.

Of course, many of these interracial marriages may not have been possible in the U.S. if the Supreme Court had not declared anti-miscegenation laws as unconstitutional in a legal opinion issued fifty years ago this month called Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, 3 (1967).

In June 1958, Mildred Jeter, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, travelled from their home in Virginia to Washington D.C. where they were married in accordance with its laws. The newlyweds then returned to their home in Caroline County, Virginia, where they were promptly charged with violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law that banned marriages between white persons and colored persons. The law proclaimed that “[i]f any white person intermarry with a colored person, or any colored person intermarry with a white person, he shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary for not less than one nor more than five years.” Va.Code Ann. § 20-59 (1960 Repl. Vol.) The law went on to invalidate Mildred and Richard’s marriage, stating that “[a]ll marriages between a white person and a colored person shall be absolutely void without any decree of divorce or other legal process.” Va.Code Ann. § 20-57 (1960 Repl. Vol.).

As justification for Virginia’s law, the trial judge presiding over the Lovings’ case announced that “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” Other courts, in affirming the trial judge’s decision, drew up on earlier court rulings that found that it was legitimate for a state to “ ‘preserve the racial integrity of its citizens,’ and to prevent ‘the corruption of blood,’ ‘a mongrel breed of citizens,’ and ‘the obliteration of racial pride.’ ”

The Lovings appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that Virginia’s law violated both the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits any state from depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which restricts states from “[denying] to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The Court agreed.

The Equal Protection clause looks at how a law draws distinctions amongst individuals and groups. If a statute distinguishes amongst people based upon certain “suspect classifications” such as race, nationality or gender, then in order for that statute to be found Constitutional, the statute must satisfy a higher standard of scrutiny. Specifically, a statute subject to strict scrutiny is only Constitutional if it (a) is justified by a compelling governmental interest, (b) is narrowly tailored to achieve its specified goals and (c) is the least restrictive means for accomplishing such interests. Here, the Court unanimously found that Virgina’s anti-miscegenation statute violated the Equal Protection Clause, stating:

“[t]here is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies [the Virginia law]. 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 classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause.”

The Court similarly found the Virginia statute violated the Due Process Clause under the rationale that marriage is a basic right and invalidating a marriage solely on the basis of race was unconstitutional:

“Marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival. To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”

On June 12, 1967, the Court issued its opinion and legalized interracial marriage across the United States. In doing so, the Court affirmed that race is not a limiting factor when accessing the institution of marriage. And now, regardless of our family origins and whether we are “white, black, yellow, malay or red”, we find ourselves here on this continent and in this country, where we all live together as neighbors, where we share the same hopes and dreams for a better life for ourselves and for our children, where we can take pride in our country’s diversity, and where we can increasingly fall in love with one another regardless of the color of our skin.

Fifty years ago, my marriage to an “American” woman would have likely been barred by the state and voided as a matter of public policy. But thanks to champions of civil rights like Mildred and Richard Loving, my spouse and I (along with an increasing number of U.S. newlyweds) are able to embody a reality previously unimaginable in this country, one in which a union ordained by God but previously denied by the state is now recognized by both.

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