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"Loving v. Bigotry" by Andrew Warner, June 11, 2017

posted Jun 12, 2017, 8:18 PM by Andrew Warner

Names can be such a funny thing; and sometimes a person turns out to be perfectly named for the controversy they cause.  We saw it earlier this month when the FBI arrested an NSA contractor for leaking sensitive information: Reality Winner.  There could be no more perfect name for someone who leaks information.  Especially since she leaked information about Russian interference to help a reality TV star become the winner.

 

But lots of people have perfect names for their situations.  Who will lead Britain?  Teresa May?  Or as Jeremy Corbyn proved, Theresa May Not.  And one of the top picks for college football is a kicker named Chance Poore.  How do fans even root for Chance Poore?  Pittsburgh also has a kicker with a fun name, Chris Blewitt.  Imagine if Chance Poore faces off against Pittsburg’s Chris Blewitt; announcer field day.

 

Today we’re celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of a Supreme Court decision, one that also involved an aptly named people, Mildred and Richard Loving.  Of course, one of the defining marriage cases of our country had to be headlined by the Lovings.

 

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But the name of the state is equally symbolic: Virginia.  The colony of Virginia was named for the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth the First.  The name of the state itself reflects a preoccupation with women’s virginity and even more with white women’s purity.  The name Virginia reverberates with long traditions of white patriarchal obsessions with sex and purity.

 

And so, the name of this Supreme Court decision points to the larger social questions it asked: love or purity, loving across racial lines or racial purity.  We celebrate Loving v. Virginia today because it’s the triumph of two ordinary people over the extraordinary power of bigotry, the triumph of love over the politics of purity.

 

Before looking more deeply at this case and the theological questions at its core, I want to first step back to share a framework for how to understand social justice questions.  I heard it from Tracy Wispelwey, a UCC pastor and artist from Virginia.  And I had an image of it inserted into your bulletin.

 

Tracy spoke of an iceberg; icebergs famously have a part that is visible above the waterline and a large mass of ice hidden below the surface.  When it comes to issues of justice, we often see most prominently an event: a visible act of discrimination or oppression.  But layers of meaning and causation lie hidden underneath that visible event: trends, what’s been going on for a while; systems, the structure of rules and laws; and beliefs, the ideas and concepts.iceberg.jpg

 

This year as we looked at the issues of white privilege and racial equity, we tried to move from shocking events and hard realities to understand the trends, systems, and beliefs that keep supporting segregation and discrimination.

 

Traci Blackmon, who helped lead the protests in Ferguson, MO, after the death of Michael Brown and now leads our Justice Witness Ministries, commented on Tracy’s iceberg theory.  She said, “We go to another rally and sign another petition but we don’t see change...  We can’t chase every dog.  We can’t get caught in an event & counter-reaction loop.  Instead of always responding we need to highlight our resolve.”

 

That resolve means engaging issues at deeper levels.  And so we can think of our responses.  To an event, we react.  To trends, we start programs like after-school clubs or food pantries.  To systems, we advocate for new policies like a more sensible approach to non-violent drug offenses.  And to beliefs, the most difficult to challenge, we respond with new symbols, rituals, and narratives; this is the unique capacity of faith communities and artists.

 

The Loving versus Virginia decision mattered so much because, while it started as a discriminatory act, the case ultimately reached down to affect our systems and beliefs about race.

 

Mildred and Richard Loving first met in their hometown of Central Point, Virginia; a rural community not far from Richmond.  In the 1950’s Richard, who was white, married Mildred, who was black.  Virginia law did not allow white people to marry anyone who wasn’t white; interracial marriages were banned.  The Lovings drove up to Washington, D.C., to get married.

 

A few weeks later, Mildred and Richard were asleep in bed.  Acting on an anonymous tip, a sheriff and two deputies burst into their home, shined flashlights in their faces, and demanded of Richard, “Who is this woman you’re sleeping with?”  Mildred answered, “I’m his wife.”  Richard showed the D.C. marriage certificate but it didn’t matter to the sheriff.  The Lovings were arrested and taken to jail.

 

The Lovings pled guilty to breaking the law against white people marrying non-whites.  A judge gave them a choice: they could leave Virginia and not return for twenty-five years or they could go to jail.  The Lovings moved to Washington, D.C.

 

The judge also expounded on the law, claiming God’s own mandate for banning interracial marriage.  He said: “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 marriages.  The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”protest.jpg

 

There is much one could say about the judge’s comments.  Not the least of which is the ridiculous of a white judge in the Americas talking about keeping the races to the continents God intended.  But more significantly, the judge’s comments in the Loving case point to the deep interweaving of Christian theology and white supremacy.  People have invoked Almighty God to justify discrimination and oppression for four hundred years!  But we are now talking about white supremacy and racism for what it is: a heresy.

 

Because actually God Almighty’s book talks in a number of places about interracial marriage.  Today we heard one of those stories as our first reading, the marriage of Boaz and Ruth.  Boaz was an Israelite; Ruth a Moabite; and these two traditionally didn’t marry.  But Boaz fell in love with Ruth.  According to the marriage laws at the time, Boaz first had to make sure no other men had a claim on Ruth’s hand in marriage.  And so, he posed a question: would anyone like to marry a widow and thereby take control of all her dead husband’s property?  Many of the men in the village thought they would.  But then Boaz reveals Ruth’s identity as a Moabite.  None of the men want to marry a foreigner.  Three thousand years later, their disdain comes through.  Boaz’s neighbors wanted to preserve their racial purity.  This clears the way for Boaz and Ruth to marry.  What I want you to hear in this old story is the prejudice against Ruth as a foreigner on the one hand and then what God does through the marriage of Boaz and Ruth on the other.  Ruth becomes the ancestor of King David.  Israel’s greatest king descended from an interracial marriage.  This sacred story rejects any notion of racial superiority and instead claims interracial marriage as part of God’s great plan of salvation.

 

After several years in Washington, D.C., the Lovings filed a motion to overturn their conviction on the grounds that Virginia’s law violated the 14th amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.  The Supreme Court ruled in their favor unanimously.  Getting to that unanimous decision required the court to look squarely at notions of white supremacy.

 

Lawyers for the Lovings struck at the very core of racist ideology: the belief that people could be classified into distinct racial groups on the basis of biology and that these groups ought to be kept apart.  Many people at the time thought interracial marriage was an issue affecting just a few people.  But in reality, the ban on interracial marriage rested on white supremacy.  And all the Jim Crow Laws - all the separate but equal masquerades - were intended to keep racial groups apart so they didn’t become intimate.

 

In making their case before the Supreme Court, lawyers for the Lovings connected the ban on interracial marriage to the long history of racial classifications.  And this review showed how arbitrary racial classifications could be.  Thus, in 1705 Virginia defined anyone with one-eighth African ancestry as black.  But it changed in 1785 to be anyone with one-quarter.  Which meant that some black people became legally white with the passage of a law.  It changed again in the 1930’s when Virginia defined as black someone with any African ancestry.

 

We don’t often talk about the arbitrary nature of racial classifications.  And yet who’s “white” and who’s “black” has changed overtime; race is a socially constructed reality.   Trevor Noah, in his recent memoir Born a Crime, pointed out the ludicrous nature of our social constructions.  He grew up under Apartheid in South Africa, a system of white supremacist laws that included odd distinctions like ruling a Chinese person black and a Japanese person white.  Noah writes:

“I always like to imagine being a South African policeman who likely couldn’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese but whose job is to make sure that people of the wrong color aren’t doing the wrong thing. He sees an Asian person sitting on a whites-only bench: ‘Hey, get off that bench, you Chinaman!’ ‘Excuse me. I’m Japanese.’ ‘Oh, I apologize, sir. I didn’t mean to be racist. Have a lovely afternoon.’”

 

White supremacy rests on the belief in real distinctions between racial groups, biological difference, and in the superiority of one over the other.  Loving v. Virginia not only ended the ban on interracial marriage but challenged our country to see the very arbitrary nature of racial categories themselves.  In doing this, Loving pushed us into a revolutionary place.  As Thomas Williams recently wrote, “The idea that we must rise above racism is an admirable one. The idea that we must rise above race is a revolutionary one.”

 

Many of us are more familiar with thinking of the social construction of identity in terms of gender.  We know the norms and expression of gender to be socially constructed.  People speak of gender fluidity and the performance nature of gender expression.  What would it mean to apply these same concepts to race?  To speak of its social construction, of racial fluidity, and racial performance?  But people are beginning to ask these questions.  You can hear it in Ta-Nehisi Coates phrase, “People who understand themselves to be white.”

 

As someone who understands himself to be white, this idea presents me with several questions.  All of which come down to this: how am I managing my whiteness?  Because if race is a social construction (and not just a biological given) then I need to think about how I act white just as I might think about how I act masculine.  As we come to the end of this year-long study of white privilege, this is the question I want to think about: how am I managing my whiteness?

 

Fifty years ago, the Loving v. Virginia decision set aside the idea of biologically based racial classifications.  And yet, we’re still trying to live into the impact of this decision, not just on interracial families and transracial families but on all of us as we understand the construction of race in America.

 

Mildred and Richard Loving were ordinary people but they did something extraordinary in their refusal to live by the social constructs of race in their day.  Their love, and their redefinition of themselves, created so much more possibility for all of us who have come after.

 

I say this mindful that the Loving v. Virginia decision became a key precedent for the decision on same-sex marriage.  Mildred Loving could see that her court case could be used this way.  And so, on the 40th anniversary of the Loving decision and shortly before her death, she said:

“I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.”

 

Mildred and Richard Loving lived their lives in a way that created more possibilities for those who came after them to live theirs; what an embodiment of true love.  And on this fiftieth anniversary I wonder: can we love as bold as the Lovings?  Can we challenge beliefs that seem written in our DNA?  Can we take responsibility for managing our whiteness?  Can we embrace what Loving, and loving, are all about?

 

Alleluia and Amen.

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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