Police knocked at the door of Mildred and Richard Loving in 1958. Their crime: They had just been married.
The two were arrested and eventually banished from Virginia for violating the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, the foundation of interracial marriage bans in 16 states. Mildred was Black and Native American; Richard was white.
That night led to an almost decade-long legal battle that culminated in 1967 when the Supreme Court declared laws banning interracial marriages to be unconstitutional.
Decades later, Loving Day is celebrated on June 12, the anniversary of the historic Loving v. Virginia decision. But while Loving v. Virginia was a huge legal leap forward, other barriers still continue for interracial relationships. Experts say that interracial relationships, while often used to measure racial progress, give an incomplete picture.
“Statistics on interracial relationships and marriages are not a barometer of the racial progress in our country,” said Kevin Noble Maillard, a law professor at Syracuse University in New York and co-author of “Loving v. Virginia in a Post-Racial World: Rethinking Race, Sex, and Marriage.”
“It’s so much more complicated than that,” he added.
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Fact check:Richard and Mildred Loving were convicted of interracial marriage in 1959
Since the Loving decision, there has been a steady increase in the number of interracial marriages and families. In 2015, 17% of U.S. newlyweds had a spouse of a different race or ethnicity, compared to 3% in 1967, Pew Research Center reported. One in 5 Americans will identify as two or more races by 2050, The Center for American Progress projects.
“But do people still largely choose their own? Yeah,” Maillard said.
White people are least likely to marry someone of a different race, according to a 2017 analysis by the Pew Research Center. Still, Maillard said most conversations on interracial marriages today center around relationships between a white person and a person of color, rather than those between two people of color of different ethnicities.
What did Loving v. Virginia accomplish?
Loving v. Virginia was a landmark case that explicitly named white supremacy as the motivation behind a law, said Sheryll Cashin, a law professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and author of “Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy.”
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that policing the color line, separating white people from people of color, was the central mechanism for constructing whiteness,” she said. “This was a victory for seeing and naming racism and dismantling a central plank of white supremacy.”
Maillard said laws preventing interracial relationships centered around preserving white racial purity. Removing these restrictions removed a central way society upheld white supremacy, he added.
“It’s integration at the most intimate level, which is the family,” he said.
Loving v. Virginia didn’t open interracial marriage for everyone
There were limitations to the ruling.
For example, military and immigration laws still restricted marriages between white soldiers and Japanese women abroad during and immediately after WWII in many Asian countries, said Rose Cuison-Villazor, a law professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey and co-author of “Loving v. Virginia in a Post-Racial World: Rethinking Race, Sex, and Marriage.”
U.S. military servicemen were barred from bringing their wives to the United States, which broke up families and limited interracial relationships.
“We can celebrate Loving v. Virginia while also thinking about its limits,” she said. “Loving Day, to me, is a reminder of the need to look more broadly at how other laws like immigration and the military also prevented hundreds of interracial couples from getting married and forming families.”
Meanwhile, interracial same-sex couples weren’t allowed to legally get married in all 50 states until a 2015 Supreme Court ruling struck down state bans on same-sex marriage.
Maillard said enduring racism in the United States prevents interracial marriage rates from growing, including racist stereotypes many people have about other races.
Schools, workplaces and neighborhoods are also largely segregated, Cuison-Villazor said, limiting opportunities for people to meet.
Cities that are more highly racially segregated typically have lower rates of interracial marriage, according to a 2018 paper by Cuison-Villazor. She said this correlation means society must first dismantle the systemic barriers to racial integration of communities.
“I think we need to look much more deeply than interracial marriages to consider how we can address ongoing racism in the United States,” she said. “For example, what are some of the systemic issues that might be limiting interracial marriage rates?”
Will interracial relationships save America?
As the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of Loving in 2017, Maillard said he saw headlines heralding interracial relationships as a solution to the nation’s problems with racism. One New York Times column claimed interracial love is “saving America.”
But Maillard said overemphasizing interracial relationships as a symbol of progress may obscure deep histories of racial violence and underlying systemic inequities.
“It’s like, OK, we have more interracial couples and mixed-race babies, but what are the outcomes of that,” he said. “Is there less income stratification? Are there lower rates of police brutality? What progress have we really made?”
Focusing too much on interracial relationships as an indicator of racial progress may perpetuate a narrative that racism exists within individuals rather than being systemic and “overlooks true political progress, substituting social justice for sexual attraction,” Maillard said.
He said people within interracial marriages can still exhibit racism, even toward their mixed-race children. In some cases, one person may be fetishizing the other, which is a form of racism in itself, Maillard said.
“Getting married to someone of another race doesn’t absolve you of your own internal racism,” he said. “Just because you think someone is bangin’ and would want to be in a sexual relationship or marriage with them doesn’t mean at all that you’re going to go to bat for them on social justice issues.”
Cassandra Chaney, a Black families’ scholar and professor at Louisiana State University, said the Loving decision was not a “definitive marker of anti-Black racism in America.”
“It is important to remember the Lovings were individuals that were part of a societal system that reinforced the notion that one racial group is superior to others,” she said.
Cashin, the Georgetown professor, said research shows that interracial relationships, including friendships, can affect the empathy a person has for people of a different race, which can then lead to a greater likelihood of participating in “collective action for racial justice.”
As a result, increased interracial connections are one of the forces moving the United States in the right direction, she said.
“Interracial marriage is not going to save us,” she said. “But I do think that interracial intimacy enhances empathy for people of different races. There just has to be another step of turning that empathy into political action. If things stop there, we’re not going anywhere.”