Was Loving v. Virginia Really About Love?

Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws banning interracial marriage, but the issues involved in the case extended beyond its current popular understanding as a tribute to romance.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Interracial marriage is at a historic high. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, couples with different racial backgrounds made up one in six new marriages in 2015—a stark change from previous eras when even looking at someone across the color line with a hint of romance could be a matter of life or death. This radical shift is largely attributed to the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia, which marks its 50th anniversary on June 12. In Loving, the Court struck down state laws banning interracial marriage, holding that such restrictions are unconstitutional.

Loving is widely praised as a case about law ceding to the power of love in the face of astonishing harassment and bigotry endured by interracial couples. The redemptive trope coming out of the Loving decision that love conquers all has also influenced other social movements, such as those leading to Obergefell v. Hodges—the 2015 Supreme Court decision recognizing same-sex marriage.

The 1967 Loving decision therefore is often celebrated as an affirmation of love that made America a better and more progressive society. There’s just one problem.

Love is not what the case was really about.

At issue in the Loving decision was Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which prohibited interracial marriage and paved the way for a series of state laws designed to prevent racial mixing. Anti-miscegenation laws had been common in Virginia for centuries. But what often becomes lost in discussions about Loving is that this particular act was signed into law on the very same day the Virginia legislature passed another act that allowed the state to forcibly sterilize people with disabilities, including people labeled with derogatory medical terms such as “feebleminded.” Questions concerning the lawfulness of Virginia’s forced sterilization law led to another landmark Supreme Court decision in 1927, Buck v. Bell, in which the Court upheld its legality with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes infamously declaring “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Virginia’s dual passage of racial integrity and sterilization acts in 1924 highlighted another concern held by lawmakers beyond that of interracial love: the perception that the white race was in danger of being weakened by inferior traits and that laws were needed to promote good racial hygiene and public health.

As legal historian Paul Lombardo notes, these acts showed how marriage restrictions and forced sterilization were deeply connected strategies for promoting a broader agenda of eugenics—a popular social and political standpoint in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that used science, law, and medicine to weed out groups with what were taken to be hereditary defects (disability, poverty, criminality, etc.). Eugenics had been practiced in many nations across the globe and took various forms, including immigration restrictions, incarceration, and the genocides seen during the Holocaust. Supporters worked to encourage the demographic growth of so-called superior people of a predictable class, race, and ethnicity.

Eugenics was a failed political attempt at giving intellectual and scientific cover to what was nothing more than the gross racism and stigmatization of disadvantaged groups. The Supreme Court, in Loving, euphemistically referred to the time when these laws were passed as a “period of extreme nativism which followed the end of the First World War.” Tied closely to this nativism was the eugenic rearticulation of old entrenched biases that were not only skeptical of foreigners, but deeply invested in controlling reproduction as a means of preserving power for a particular slice of White America.

Within this context, it becomes clear that the issues involved in Loving extended beyond its current popular understanding as a tribute to romance. Indeed, for a case heralded for being about the boundless nature of love, there is surprisingly little discussion about this in the Loving decision apart from the appellants’ surname and rather dry assertions that marriage is a civil right. By contrast, consider this passage from the Court’s opinion in Obergefell, which reflects Justice Anthony Kennedy’s tone throughout a decision that waxes poetically on love’s virtues:

Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.

The Loving decision instead responded to the eugenic aspect of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act and how it was designed to prevent the perceived dilution of white racial purity. Rather than celebrating love, the Court’s opinion states that laws against interracial marriage are unconstitutional because they are “measures designed to maintain White Supremacy.”

Understanding Loving v. Virginia from this perspective highlights exactly why it is important, 50 years later, to recognize the Court’s decision in ways that go beyond affirming that love knows no racial boundaries. Loving v. Virginia continues to be relevant to modern discussions on racial intimacy, and speaks to contemporary social and political initiatives whose true purpose is often masked by distracting and disingenuous rhetoric. This can be seen in current government proposals aimed at banning travel from certain Muslim-majority countries, building a physical barrier on the southern border, revoking health care from millions of people, and decimating civil rights programs and social services that provide support for the most vulnerable. A robust understanding of Loving instructs us to peel back the superficial economic and political justifications for these contemporary proposals. This allows us to appreciate how they are often motivated by an eerily reminiscent Holmesian logic regarding who is weak and who is strong, who belongs and who doesn’t, and who deserves to live and who should perish.

At its half-century mark, Loving v. Virginia should be celebrated for fostering multi-racial relationships that have brought joy to many families and made communities stronger. Yet, it’s also important to understand and appreciate its relevance to not only intimate relationships, but also relationships between government and those who are governed. Loving is a decision that implores us to reject the eugenic and supremacist remnants of a distant past and to pursue a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive society. That, in a nutshell, is what love is truly about.