Monday, June 11, 2007


Forty Years After a Landmark Supreme Court Ruling, Interracial Marriages -- Considered Unthinkable (And Banned By Law in 16 States) Only a Generation Ago -- are Flourishing in the U.S.

In June of 1958, Richard Loving (right) and Mildred Jeter had married in Washington D.C. Upon returning to their home state of Virginia, the couple was arrested, convicted of a felony, and sentenced to a year in jail. Their appeals led to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 unanimously striking down state anti-miscegenation laws prohibiting interracial marriages as violations of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law. (Photo courtesy of Ebony magazine)

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Dear Readers:

This week marks the 40th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared unconstitutional laws in 16 states that banned interracial marriage. This blogger was 14 years old at the time of the ruling, which had a profoundly beneficial effect on my own family. My parents were an interracial couple; my mother was African American and my father was Native American. Until the high court's ruling, my mother's home state of Louisiana refused to recognize her marriage -- and would have considered me an illegitimate child, had I been born there instead of in New York. On May 12 of this year, a new interracial marriage began -- my own. My new bride, Ellie, is Caucasian. Needless to say, the Loving decision is very precious to me in many ways. It is, therefore, with a deep sense of gratitude that I dedicate this week's edition of The 'Skeeter Bites Report to Richard and Mildred Loving.

Skeeter Sanders

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By David Crary
The Associated Press

The charisma king of the 2008 presidential field.

The world's best golfer.

The captain of the New York Yankees.

Besides superstardom, Barack Obama, Tiger Woods and Derek Jeter all have another common bond: Each is the child of an interracial marriage.

For most of U.S. history, in most communities, such unions were taboo. In 16 states, mostly in the South, they were illegal.

It was 40 years ago this week — on June 12, 1967 — that the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down a Virginia statute barring whites from marrying nonwhites. The decision also overturned similar bans in 15 other states.

Since that landmark ruling, Loving v. Virginia, the number of interracial marriages has soared; black/white marriages alone increased from 65,000 in 1970 to 422,000 in 2005, according to Census Bureau figures.

Factoring in all racial combinations, Stanford University sociologist Michael Rosenfeld calculates that more than seven percent of America’s 59 million married couples in 2005 were interracial, compared to less than two percent in 1970.

Coupled with a steady flow of immigrants from all parts of the world, the surge of interracial marriages and multiracial children is producing a 21st century America more diverse than ever, with the potential to become less stratified by race.

“The racial divide in the U.S. is a fundamental divide. . . but when you have the ’other’ in your own family, it’s hard to think of them as ’other’ anymore,” Rosenfeld said. “We see a blurring of the old lines, and that has to be a good thing, because the lines were artificial in the first place.”

The boundaries, particularly against unions between blacks and whites (especially black men and white women), were still distinct in 1967, a year when the Sidney Poitier film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” — a comedy built around parents’ acceptance of a black/white interracial couple — was considered groundbreaking.

The Saga of Richard and Mildred Loving

[In the pre-dawn hours of July 15, 1958, Richard and Mildred Loving were roused from their sleep in the bedroom of their Central Point, Virginia home with three flashlights shining in their eyes. A voice behind the lights demanded of Richard, "What the hell are you doing in bed with this nigger woman?"

["I'm his wife!" Mildred answered. "We're married!" Richard shouted as he pointed to their five-week-old Washington D.C. marriage license hanging on the wall.

[Caroline County Sheriff R. Garnett Brooks looked up and read the license, but dismissed it out of hand. "That’s no good here!" he informed the couple. The sheriff, along with two deputies -- who had entered the Lovings' house through an unlocked door at 2:00 a.m. -- then placed the couple under arrest.

[The lawmen charged the Lovings with a felony violation of Virginia's Racial Integrity Act of 1924, an anti-miscegenation law that prohibited not only interracial marriage, but also "immoral relations" between whites and nonwhites, whether married or not.

[Richard was white and Mildred was "colored" -- as all nonwhites were legally classified in Virginia and many other states before the rise of the civil rights movement, regardless of their actual racial background.

[Ironically, the former Mildred Jeter was herself the daughter of an interracial couple, although both her parents were nonwhite: Her mother was black and her father was a Cherokee Indian.]

Trial Judge: 'Race-Mixing Against God's Will'

[Following their subsequent trial and conviction, Caroline County Superior Court Judge Leon Basile sentenced the Lovings to one year in jail, then suspended the sentence on the condition the couple remain out of the state of Virginia for 25 years.

[In a blistering denunciation of the Lovings' marriage, Judge Basile declared, "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 arrangements, there would be no cause for such marriage."

[The Lovings moved to the nation's capital, where they lived with their three children while pursuing their appeal, which ended nine years later with their victory in the Supreme Court.]

Supreme Court: Mixed-Race Couples Have a Constitutional Right to Marry

[The justices ruled unanimously that Virginia and 15 other states with similar anti-miscegenation laws could not, under the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment, criminalize the Lovings' marriage solely because they were of different races.

[Writing for the court, then-Chief Justice Earl Warren declared, "The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men. 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."

[Interestingly, the Lovings never saw themselves as civil rights activists or heroes, but rather simply as two people engaged in a struggle for personal freedom. They did not attend the presentation of oral arguments in the Supreme Court, and, when asked by Ebony magazine what the ruling meant for them, Richard said only that: "For the first time, I could put my arm around [Mildred] and publicly call her my wife."

[Mildred expressed similar sentiments, telling The Washington Post in a separate interview following the high court decision that "I feel free now . . . it was a great burden."

[Even today, Mildred Loving, now 67 and a widow, remains the same intensely private woman she was four decades ago, still living in the small Virginia town of Milford, just over the Caroline County line from the town of Central Point, where the couple grew up -- and still reluctant to acknowledge her contribution to the civil rights movement.

[She declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a 1992 interview with The New York Times marking the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision, Mildred said of the history-making case: "It was thrown in my lap. What choice did I have? We weren't bothering anyone, and if we were hurting somebody's feelings, too bad."

[The Lovings' marriage ended tragically in 1975, when their car was rammed broadside by a drunk driver, killing Richard instantly. Mildred survived, but lost an eye in the crash. She has never remarried.]

Ebony & Ivory: Radical in the '50s and '60s, Commonplace Now

Forty years after the Lovings' high court victory, what once seemed so radical to many Americans is now commonplace.

Many prominent African Americans — including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, civil rights leader Julian Bond and former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun (D-Illinois) — have married Caucasian spouses. Well-known white men who have married black women include former Defense Secretary William Cohen and actor Robert DeNiro.

Last year, the Salvation Army installed Israel Gaither as the first black leader of its U.S. operations. He and his wife, Eva, who is white, wed in 1967 within weeks of the Supreme Court's ruling -- the first interracial marriage between Salvation Army officers in the United States.

Opinion polls show overwhelming popular support -- especially among Americans born after the Loving decision -- for interracial marriage. Not surprisingly, young people whose parents are interracial couples take such unions for granted.

And their numbers are growing exponentially.

That’s not to say acceptance has been universal. Interviews with interracial couples from around the country reveal varied challenges, and opposition has lingered in some quarters.

Bob Jones University in South Carolina dropped its ban on interracial dating only seven years ago -- and even then, only after it became an embarrassing issue in the state's Republican presidential primary.

In 2001, 40 percent of the voters objected when Alabama became the last state to remove a long-unenforceable ban on interracial marriages from its constitution.

Even today, taunts and threats, including cross burnings, still occur sporadically. In Cleveland, two white men were sentenced to prison earlier this year for harassment of an interracial couple that included spreading liquid mercury around their house.

Tough Times for Some Interracial Families

More often, though, the difficulties are more nuanced, such as those faced by Kim and Al Stamps during 13 years as an interracial couple in Jackson, Mississippi. Kim, a white woman raised in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, met Al, who is black, in 1993 after she came to Jackson’s Tougaloo College to study history.

Together, they run Cool Al’s, a popular hamburger restaurant, while raising a 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter in the state with the nation’s lowest percentage (0.7) of multiracial residents.

The children are homeschooled, Kim said, because Jackson’s schools are largely divided along racial lines and might not be comfortable for biracial children. She said their family triggered a wave of “white flight” when they moved into a mostly white neighborhood four years ago. “People were saying to my kids, ’What are you doing here?'” she said.

“Making friends here has been really, really tough,” Kim said. “I’ll go five years at a time with no white friends at all.”

Yet some of the worst friction has been with Kim's black in-laws. Kim said they accused her of scheming to take over the family business, and there’s been virtually no contact for more than a year.

“Everything was race,” Kim said. “I was called ’the white devil.”’

Her own parents in Massachusetts have been supportive, Kim said, but she credited her mother with foresight. “She told me, ’Your life is going to be harder because of this road you’ve chosen — it’s going to be harder for your kids,”’ Kim said. “She was absolutely right.”

Al Stamps acknowledged that he is less sensitive to his relatives' disapproval than his wife, and tries to be philosophical. “I’m always cordial,” he said. “I’ll wait to see how people react to us. If I’m not wanted, I’ll move on.”

For Other Mixed Couples, 'In-Your-Face' Racism Is Rare

It’s been easier, if not always smooth, for other mixed couples.

Major Cox, a black Alabamian, and his white wife, Ohio-born Margaret Meier, have lived on the Cox family homestead in Smut Eye, Alabama, for more than 20 years, building a large circle of black and white friends while encountering relatively few hassles.

“I don’t feel it, I don’t see it,” said Cox, now 66, when asked about racist hostility. “I live a wonderful life as a non-racial person.” Meier says she occasionally detects some expressions of disapproval of their marriage, “but flagrant, in-your-face racism is pretty rare now.”

Cox, an Army veteran and former private detective who now joins his wife in raising quarter horses, longs for a day when racial lines in America break down. “We are sitting on a powder keg of racism that’s institutionalized in our attitudes, our churches and our culture,” he said, “that’s going to destroy us if we don’t undo it.”

Mixed Marriages Crossing International Lines, Too

In many cases, interracial families embody a mix of nationalities as well as races. Michelle Cadeau, born in Sweden, and her husband, James, born in Haiti, are raising their two sons as Americans in racially diverse West Orange, N.J., while teaching them about all three cultures.

“I think the children of families like ours will be able to make a difference in the world, and do things we weren’t able to do,” Michelle Cadeau said. “It’s really important to put all their cultures together, to be aware of their roots, so they grow up not just as Swedish or Haitian or American, but as global citizens.”

Meanwhile, though, there are frustrations — such as school forms for the couple's five-year-old son, Justin, that provide no option for him to be identified as multiracial. “I’m aware there are going to be challenges,” Michelle said. “There’s stuff that’s been working for a very long time in this country that is not going to work anymore.”

A Growing Population of Multiracial Americans

The boom in interracial marriages forced the federal government to change its procedures for the 2000 census, allowing Americans for the first time to identify themselves by more than one racial category.

As a result, about 6.8 million Americans described themselves as multiracial — 2.4 percent of the population — adding statistical fuel to the ongoing debate over what race really means.

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, professor of African-American studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, is the daughter of a black father and white mother, and says she is asked almost daily how she identifies herself.

The surge in interracial marriage comes at “a very awkward moment” in America’s long struggle with racism, she says.

“We all want deeply and sincerely to be beyond race, to live in a world where race doesn’t matter, but we continue to see deep racial disparities,” Rockquemore said. “For interracial families, the great challenge is when the kids are going to leave home and face a world that is still very racialized.”

The stresses on interracial couples can take a toll. The National Center for Health Statistics says their chances of a breakup within 10 years are 41 percent, compared to 31 percent for a couple of the same race.

In some categories of interracial marriage, there are distinct gender-related trends. More than twice as many black men marry white women as vice-versa, and about three-fourths of white-Asian marriages involve white men and Asian women.

C.N. Le, a Vietnamese-American who teaches sociology at the University of Massachusetts, says the pattern has created some friction in Asian-American communities.

“Some of the men view the women marrying whites as sellouts, and a lot of Asian women say, ’Well, we would want to date you more, but a lot of you are sexist or patriarchal,”’ said Le, who attributes the friction in part to gender stereotypes of Asians that have been perpetuated by American films and TV shows.

Acceptance In a Pennsylvania College Town

Kelley Kenney, a professor at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, is among those who have bucked the black-white gender trend. A black woman, she has been married since 1988 to a fellow academic of Irish-Italian descent, and they have jointly offered programs for the American Counseling Association about interracial couples.

Kenney recalled some tense moments in 1993 when, soon after they moved to Kutztown, a harasser shattered their car window and placed chocolate milk cartons on their lawn. “It was very powerful to see how the community rallied around us,” she said.

Kenney is well aware that some blacks, particularly of the older generation, view interracial marriage as a potential threat to black identity, and she knows her two daughters, now 15 and 11, will face questions on how they identify themselves.

“For older folks in the black community,” she said “it’s a feeling of not wanting people to forget where they came from.”

Yet some black intellectuals embrace the surge in interracial marriages and multiracial families; among them is Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy, who addressed the topic in his latest book, “Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption.”

“Malignant racial biases can and do reside in interracial liaisons,” Kennedy wrote. “But against the tragic backdrop of American history, the flowering of multiracial intimacy is a profoundly moving and encouraging development.”

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Additional background on the Loving case (denoted in brackets) provided by The 40th anniversary of the Loving decision is being celebrated on Tuesday, June 12 as "Loving Day" by interracial couples across the country. For more information on the celebrations, you can visit the Loving Day Web site at

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Volume II, Number 28
Special Report Copyright 2007, The Associated Press.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2007, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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