Against Loving (v. Virginia)

President Bush is supporting a constitutional amendment against gay marriage. Today in his radio address he said decisions about the nature of marriage should be decided by voters and not by the courts.

This got me thinking about the case of Loving v. Virginia , decided in 1967, in which the U. S. Supreme Court struck down a Virginia law criminalizing interracial marriage, and with it the laws of 15 other states which still had such laws (Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.) So, following the President’s logic, I guess we are going to need a massive do-over.

By coincidence, I happened to know a little bit about the origins of some of the laws that Loving overturned. Sixteen years ago, while working on a book at Michael Jordan, I was exploring the cultural impact of previous Africa-American sports stars. Jack Johnson was my starting point. His emergence as the first black heavyweight champion inspired can only be described as a crisis of white masculinity.

“The white man must be saved,” wrote no less a live-r of the rugged life than author Jack London in 1909. This proclamation came as Johnson, who had defended his title five times, was preparing to meet the Great White Hope, Jim Jeffries. Johnson knocked Jeffries in the 15th round of their fight in Reno, and racially-motivated violence erupted around the country. Nine governors banned the fight film from their state. A Baltimore minister declared that Johnson’s victory made it unsafe for white women to walk the streets. A popular comic book captured the sexual roots of this paranoia: “Black Ape Splitting the White Princess.”

In this climate, in 1912, Rep. Seaborn Roddenberry of Georgia introduced a constitutional amendment banning interracial marriages. In supporting his amendment he said: “Intermarriage between whites and blacks is repulsive and averse to every sentiment of pure American spirit. It is abhorrent and repugnant. It is subversive to social peace. It is destructive of moral supremacy, and ultimately this slavery to black beasts will bring this nation to a fatal conflict.”

The amendment failed. But influenced by Rodddenberry, ten states introduced similar laws in 1913. Eventually thirty states had laws banning interracial marriage.

Lest we see these as vestiges of a the distant past, here is a Virginia judge Leon Bazile defending his state’s miscegenation law in passing sentence on the Lovings in 1965: Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

In this example, we move from Roddenberry’s overt racism to Bazile’s bizarre appeal to natural theology. This is a common trajectory. The initial panic that inspires prejudice is too ugly a thing to live long in daylight. So it gets baptized, theologized. The case gets made from Scripture. (Read the latest book by the great evangelical historian Mark Noll to see how this happened in the case of slavery.) Eventually, you can support the policies inspired by the original prejudice while denying any desire beyond conforming your will to that of God.

We’ve seen this trick pulled so many times that you would think it would lose its effectiveness. But apparently not.

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