In June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court made the controversial decision that same-sex couples were entitled to marry. Fifty years ago this week, the Court made another landmark decision about who could love whom. The serendipitously named Loving v. Virginia was decided in favor of Mildred and Richard Loving, a mixed-race Virginia couple who married in Washington, D.C., despite the state of Virginia's anti-miscegenation statute, which prohibited marriage (and even sexual intercourse) between men and women of different races — primarily blacks and whites.
In 1959, the Lovings were sentenced to prison for "cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth," but fought back. Eight years later, the Supreme Court deemed anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. Today, 1 in 6 marriages in the United States are between people of different races or ethnicities.
More Local Than Worldwide
Between the years 1634 and 1967, the British colonies in the New World that became U.S. state governments forbade interracial marriages. In 1967 when Loving v. Virginia was decided, 16 states still banned mixed marriages, while a century prior they had been outlawed in more than half of the existing states. Although there has never been a federal ban against mixed marriages in the United States, the country remains the historical leader in anti-miscegenation legislation. Nazi Germany and apartheid-era South Africa both forbade marriage between certain ethnic and racial groups, for instance, but overall, explicit anti-miscegenation laws have been rare worldwide. Despite the Loving decision, individual courts and clerks sometimes refused to issue marriage licenses, as in the 1970 Mississippi case of Roger Mills and Berta Linson.
This could partly be due to the fact that in some places in the world, the government doesn't involve itself with marriage as the United States does — coupling is governed by customary or religious rules, bringing culture rather than ethnicity or race to the forefront. For instance, under some interpretations of Islamic law, Muslim men are allowed to marry Christian or Jewish women, but Muslim women are not allowed to marry outside of the faith unless their potential husband converts to Islam. During its empire-minded expansion period in the late 18th century, France passed acts against interracial relationships in its colonial territiories, and India following its 1857 uprising against British rule was subject to similar laws.
And sometimes there are no laws, just custom. For instance, in China in 1978, there was not one interracial marriage registered in the entire country of more than 950 million people. This was not because of any specific law forbidding it — at the time, marrying someone who was not Chinese just wasn't done. (Definitions of race and ethnicity can be messy, and change over time, so while an outsider may see everyone in China as "Chinese," internally you could deal with the Han ethnic majority but also more than 50 other officially recognized minority groups.) These days, interracial marriages are on the rise in China — in 2012, 53,000 Chinese men and women tied the knot with people who weren't Chinese nationals.
"Interracial marriage has definitely increased everywhere," says Sally Kitch, a professor of women's and gender studies at Arizona State University and author of the anti-miscegenation laws entry in the Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies, via email. "Immigration contributes to that effect, but it really depends on what you mean by races."
It's Complicated Because We Make It Complicated
The idea that parentage is important is very old — selective breeding of livestock has been around for millennia, and parentage is important in stories we've been telling each other for thousands of years. For instance, according to Christians, Jesus being the son of God had a lot to do with his importance, and Wonder Woman wouldn't be so talented or beautiful if she weren't the daughter of Zeus. The later-disproven eugenics movement which captured the imaginations of American scientists and intellectuals in the early 20th century can basically be boiled down to the idea that humans should be "bred for fitness," which translated pretty tidily into selecting for "white" and "rich."
And although eugenics was used to support laws like the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which kept Mildred and Richard Loving from being legally married in their home state of Virginia, the modern understanding of race gives us to understand that small morphological differences between humans are products of trivial differences in DNA. For example, our current understanding of genetics and skin color suggests that it takes only about 100 generations of living under a particular set of environmental conditions to change the skin tone of an entire population of humans.
Yet sometimes it doesn't even take something as noticeable as looks to cause groups of people to separate from one another.
"Are Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda different races?" says Kitch. "They observe different religions and have antagonistic relations, but there are no physiological differences between them. In 1994-1995, seven out of ten non-Christian Tutsis were murdered by Christian Hutus pumped up by their leaders on the ideology of Hutu Power. Because physiology had nothing to do with the conflict, the killers had to check national ID's in order to know who was Tutsi and who was Hutu and, therefore, whom to kill. Because of extensive intermarriage, brothers-in-law sometimes killed brothers-in-law and tore families apart."
The U.S. has known similar violence, but these days the marriages that were prevented by law for so long have steadily been increasing, from just 3 percent of all performed in 1967, to 17 percent in 2015. And according to surveys performed by the Pew Research Center, attitudes about interracial marriage have improved, even in the past few decades. In 1990, 63 percent of nonblack adults said they would oppose a close relative marrying a black person, while only 14 percent responded the same way in 2015.