Loving, 50 Years and Counting

It’s 10 o’clock at night, and I’m sitting in a vegan restaurant in midtown Manhattan with my multiracial posse, having just come from a panel discussion on racial identity and the mixed-race experience in America. It’s a topic we’ve been mulling over – well, for all of our lives. 

The four of us represent different combinations of black, white, Native American and Asian. We’ve crossed paths at various interracial conferences, literary festivals and social events multiple times before, bonding over our blended backgrounds even though we each have a slightly different perspective on what it means to be biracial.

“So where are we now as a movement?” one of my late-night dinner companions asks. The multiracial movement, that is.

“Is that even a thing anymore?” I wonder silently.

The multiracial movement – if we can call it that – refers to grassroots efforts over the last 20 or so years to raise awareness and bring formal recognition to the growing number of people who identify as biracial.

In the 1990s, support groups for interracial families had sprung up in a number of cities around the country, Tiger Woods coined the term “Cablinasian” to describe his mixed background, and debates about racial identity became a more frequent topic on television talk shows, internet discussion boards and other popular media.

The movement declared a victory of sorts with the 2000 Census, the first time in American history that people could check more than one category when asked for their race. Whereas previous census forms had instructed respondents to “check only one” racial box, now the instructions say to “mark one or more.”

For folks like me, that’s a sign of progress, and it was a direct result of interracial family activism. Finally, the government had to acknowledge those of us who identify as multiracial rather than arbitrarily reassigning us to a single racial group. In 2000, 6.8 million people checked more than one box. In 2010, that number grew to 9 million.

But the birth of the multiracial movement can be traced, at least symbolically, to a U.S. Supreme Court decision made 50 years ago this month. On June 12, 1967, the Court struck down a Virginia law that made it a felony for an interracial couple to wed.

Richard and Mildred Loving, a white man and a black woman, married in 1958 in Washington, DC. When they returned home to rural Virginia, they were arrested, hauled out of their home by the local sheriff in the middle of the night. The trial judge hearing their case ordered them to leave the state for 25 years or face jail time.

The Lovings packed their bags and relocated to the nation’s capital. Civil rights lawyers took up their case, resulting in the landmark decision nine years later.

“Under our Constitution,” a unanimous Supreme Court declared, “the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the state. These convictions must be reversed.”

The case, poetically known as Loving v. Virginia, toppled interracial marriage bans still on the books in more than a dozen other states at the time.

Since then, the number of interracial unions has soared. An analysis by the Pew Research Center found that in 2015, 17 percent of all U.S. newlyweds had a spouse of a different race (when Hispanic-to-non-Hispanic marriages are included), a fivefold increase since 1967 when just 3 percent of newlyweds were intermarried. That translates to 11 million people who are intermarried today, nearly three times the number in 1980, according to the researchers.

The Pew study also found the general public has become more accepting of interracial families, with 22 percent of U.S. adults saying that the presence of more children with parents of different races would be a good thing for society, compared to 11 percent who viewed it as a bad thing. The majority – 65 percent – didn’t think it made much difference.

So where is the multiracial movement today? It’s a question for which I didn’t have a clear answer as our gang of four devoured our avocado burgers and fruit smoothies. But it seems the political rallying that once went toward rewriting government forms has largely given way to creating more safe spaces to gather and share our stories.

The anniversary of the Loving decision is now celebrated as “Loving Day” in communities across the country, with the flagship celebration held in New York City. On the West Coast, the “Mixed Remixed” film and literary festival draws hundreds to celebrate the works of authors, filmmakers, and performance artists giving voice to the multiracial experience. Within academia, mixed-race studies has become a bona fide discipline with an annual national conference where researchers present their findings. Hollywood has also taken notice. In 2017, the movie “Loving,” which chronicles Richard and Mildred’s journey, received multiple Oscar nominations.

And yet… On the night of our dinner conversation, just a few hours earlier, we had been part of a panel discussion in which a college student of Filipino and African-American ancestry began tearing up when he spoke of his struggle with his own identity. It seemed he was trying to reconcile an emotional need to affirm his blackness without marginalizing his Filipino mother in the process.

By the end of the discussion, I almost wanted to call for a group hug. As recent events have underscored, our ideals about racial equality continue to bump up against racial reality. Despite wider acceptance of interracial coupling, hybrid identities and the fluidity of the very notion of race, we’re still wrestling with these issues. Fifty years after Loving, it’s a conversation we need to continue.

Elliott Lewis is the author of “Fade: My Journeys in Multiracial America” (2006). Visit his website at www.lewisfreelance.com.

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