How Do You Feel about Becky with the Good Hair? A Legal Perspective

Interracial marriage in the United States is nothing new. Despite widespread narratives concerning racial “purity” and the taboos of racial mixing, couples historically defied social norms and laws in the pursuit of love.

Laws targeting the mixing of races date back to the 1600s. The first laws to criminalize marriage (or sex) between whites and African Americans were enacted during the colonial era in Virginia and Maryland. These regulations pertained specifically to whites marrying enslaved Africans or indentured servants and threatened exile for white perpetrators. In 1691, Virginia expanded upon these sanctions by forbidding whites from marrying free Blacks and set the precedent as the first law that relied solely on race rather than class or status of servitude to dictate who one could marry. “Anti-miscegenation laws,” as they would later be deemed, were explicit intended to bar interracial marriage and interracial sex.

While anti-miscegenation laws prohibited whites from marrying any person who was non-white, they were really targeted at preventing whites from marrying anyone of African descent. As colonies gained their independence, anti-miscegenation laws were enforced through the state and the punishment for breaking one of these laws became even more severe. Individuals could be charged with felony adultery and fornication with a minimum sentence of one year in prison. Additionally, the law’s advocates made several attempts to introduce U.S. constitutional amendments to make interracial marriage illegal on a national level. Though more than two-thirds of the states possessed anti-miscegenation laws, no attempt for a nationwide ban was ever successful.

It was not until 1967 that anti-miscegenation laws were considered unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. In Loving vs. Virginia, the Court found that the laws violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Jeter, a Black woman, had traveled to Washington D.C. to legally marry. Upon returning to Virginia, Richard and Mildred were arrested for defying the state’s anti-miscegenation laws and sentenced to one year in jail. According to the trial judge, “Almighty God created the races…and he placed them on different continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement 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.” In spite of his opinion, the Lovings avoided jail time and set a new standard for the legality of interracial marriage in the U.S. In 2016, Loving, the cinematic depiction of this love story and case was nominated for an Oscar, two Golden Globes, and either nominated for or women over eighty other awards.

According to the Pew Research Center, more than 12% of people marry outside of their race. For Blacks in particular, nearly 19% have a spouse from another race. These statistics likely understate the shifting norms towards interracial marriage in the U.S., even despite current racial tensions. While ideas of racial purity still exist today, the sentiments have not found their way into restrictive marital laws as seen in the past. From stories of Emmett Till’s beaten for reason of  looking at a white woman, to the contemporary prevalence of interracial marriages, we have clearly come a long way but still have progress to make.