‘Loving’ and the Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Movement

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Culture & Conversation Race

‘Loving’ and the Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Movement

Regina Mahone

Sheryll Cashin's new book, Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy, is perfectly timed and should be consumed in its entirety by those seeking a deeper examination of how white supremacy worked historically.

Saved by the Bell was my favorite show growing up. Set in California, the early 1990s TV comedy series followed six high school students as they found new ways to torment their principal.

Six years old when the show first aired, one of the things I remember most is how the nerdy character, Samuel “Screech” Powers, pined after Lisa Turtle, the show’s fashionista. Nothing about it seemed strange; Lisa was a catch. She had great style and nice dance moves (even on just one foot while doing “the Sprain”).

I didn’t think about the fact that Lisa was Black and Screech was white, what that fact said about how the country had evolved since the end of legal segregation, and what seeing those interracial friendships and partnerships would mean for my generation and future generations. And it definitely didn’t dawn on me that had Lisa reciprocated Screech’s feelings, they would have been able to marry, thanks to Mildred and Richard Loving.

In her new book, Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy, Georgetown University law professor Sheryll Cashin explains how the United States transitioned from sanctioning “racial integrity” laws to permitting interracial relationships on nationally syndicated television. A daughter of civil rights activists, Cashin argues that a rising “culturally dexterous class” will lead us to a third Reconstruction, which is critical to creating a just society.

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To be clear, Cashin isn’t arguing that interracial couples will save our society. The miscegenation that took place during the genocide of Native tribal communities and enslavement of African Americans shows us interracial relationships do not translate into racial or social equality. She does make the case, however, for the expansion of a growing class of people—those with “an enhanced capacity for intimate connections with people outside one’s own tribe, for seeing and accepting difference rather than demanding assimilation to an unspoken norm of whiteness”—who will bring our society closer to “a more perfect Union.”

It’s a perfectly timed position and book, which should be consumed in its entirety by people new to these issues or those seeking a deeper examination of how white supremacy worked historically.

Loving is split into three parts: before, during, and after the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case. In the first part, the author synthesizes how the Jamestown, Virginia, governor’s naïve vision of “an integrated community of indigent Englishmen laboring with willing natives” in June 1607 quickly developed into “a policy of extermination and massacre” of indigenous people. During this period in early colonial Virginia, “there were brief interludes of peace and individual examples of friendship, love, and lovemaking between indigenous and non-indigenous, yet these instances were exceptions,” Cashin writes.

The notorious John Smith and Pocahontas friendship was one of those exceptions, though what many have come to know about the pair “is almost certainly untrue,” says Cashin. Pocahontas, who took on the common role of cultural mediator to the English, may have been acting in an adoption ritual, not in a rescue mission as the tale often implies. Her father, Chief Powhatan, “certainly treated Smith as something of a son and an ally for a period and offered a trade alliance with the colony,” Cashin explains, referring to a peace deal in exchange for food to feed Smith’s starving people. Tragically, the colonists responded by burning crops, as it was beyond their imagination as conquerors “to supplicate to a First Nation,” Cashin says.

This episode was an early demonstration of how, for European settlers, “supremacy and power sharing could not coexist.”

Throughout the book, and especially in this first section, Cashin doesn’t just retell history; she also highlights the often-misrepresented aspects of this country’s beginnings about Black chattel slavery, and the racial and economic segregation that followed.

In the 1660s, in response to a number of rebellions involving thousands of African and European laborers, the ruling class in Virginia began to prohibit interracial “conspiracies.”

Importantly, Cashin unpacks why “Negroes” were eventually targeted in racialized laws, when up to that point Africans had worked as servants alongside their European counterparts and differential treatment had not yet emerged. As Cashin notes, Africans were in service to planter elites for life, whereas indentured servants were term-limited. To transition to Black chattel slavery, the planter elite had to find a way to keep Africans from seeking independence alongside Europeans.

“It is less clear whether the rulers of the colony thought through the ramifications of the legal and social architecture they would have to construct to make chattel slavery viable,” Cashin writes. “Nevertheless, those in power began to construct this architecture, and thus began the prohibitions on interracial mixing.”

In 1662, the Virginia Assembly doubled the penalty for interracial sex between a “Christian” and a “Negro,” while mandating, in opposition to the English patrilineal tradition, “that children fathered by an Englishman with a Negro woman would … derive their status from the mother.” This allowed planter elites to expand their slaveholdings without facing any penalties—one of the most sickening acts in this country’s origin story.

The fact that the white elite created and enforced anti-miscegenation ideology as a way to divide the nation’s residents—at the same time that they engaged in patently coercive master-slave sex for their own financial gain and to the devastation of entire generations of Black and brown people—should give us all pause.

As the ideology of white supremacy codified, anti-Blackness settled in among non-Blacks and even those who had important friendships and political alliances with African Americans. President Abraham Lincoln greeted abolitionist Frederick Douglass “heartily as [he] entered the White House along with other members of the public on the occasion of the president’s second inauguration,” and displayed a cultural dexterity that broke new ground as he modeled a form of interracial collaboration for the nation. Still, Lincoln, like other Republicans at the time, did not contemplate social equality for Black Americans.

Racism, Cashin writes, “was a mental process that was essential to the creation of remarkable wealth in America.” And still today, some leaders in the United States refuse to give up our socially constructed caste system.

Once the nation entered the Jim Crow era, during which separate-but-equal laws multiplied, civil rights activists of all colors began challenging the Constitution and the meaning behind the core American value that “all men are created equal.” How could equality exist without racial, social, and gender equality?

The Lovings, while pivotal to the story of interracial marriage and the persistence of white supremacy in the United States, appear only briefly in the book. Cashin moves through their story quickly, likely because it has been well documented. The couple was exiled from their family in Virginia after being arrested and jailed for breaking the state’s anti-miscegenation law, and forced to leave the state as part of their sentence agreement. We learn Richard Loving, a white brick mason, was big into drag racing, and that Mildred, who self-identified as part Negro and Native American but eventually solely identified as Rappahannock Indian, was a reproductive justice activist, though neither the author nor Mildred called it as such. (An example of her reproductive justice activism: She wrote to then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy to review the couple’s case, which the American Civil Liberties Union would take on, after her family, including three children, were forced to live in what she likely would have called “an unsafe environment” in Washington, D.C, where her son was hit by a car while playing in the street.)

The Supreme Court’s ruling curtailed efforts to use anti-miscegenation laws as a tool to further enforce the so-called color line. This has created, Cashin argues, an environment ripe for continued progress. Cashin offers examples of the road toward same-sex marriage acceptance to show how cultural change is possible. So while Loving did not reverse “the structures and dog-whistled ideology of supremacy,” it helped to detangle intimate relationships from the web of white supremacist norms.

“The closest bonds still tend to be intraracial,” adds Cashin, and “in the absence of class unity, culturally dexterous people may be our only hope for disrupting” the scripts woven in the fabric of what “makes America great” (in the words of the country’s 45th president).

My generation—the Saved by the Bell generation—and those who have come after Gen Y have grown up more racially dexterous than our parents and grandparents (though, of course, we have not been immune to white supremacy, which continues to reign in more unspoken ways, such as through the criminalization of Black and brown bodies). So while some young and/or less informed people may not have noticed the reassertion of white supremacy during and immediately following the Obama administration, they most certainly grasped that it was possible for a Black man, a likely descendant of the first African enslaved in America, to become president. The Lovings helped make that possible too. And as Cashin explains, “blackness was humanized” for many people through the former president, whether they realized it was happening or not.

Cashin ends on a positive note, putting the onus on us (the readers who made it to the very end, as the author put it) to help write a new narrative of our country. But in order to do that, the author says it “requires acceptance … of the self-evident truth of our founding. If all are created equal, then America should not have been constructed as a white country.” And although some cannot accept a “pluribus that renders white just one among many,” those who understand where whiteness comes from have an opportunity to spread “the social epidemic or virus of cultural dexterity.”

She acknowledges that even with such an expansion, if “the architecture of segregation, including mass incarceration,” is not dismantled, the legacy of slavery will persist. And so it is crucial for the dexterous class to overcome racial and economic segregation—“the unfinished business of the civil rights movement.” Cashin describes what such a future might look like, in which communities are truly integrated and people can live without fear; poor people could find opportunity from which they’re presently excluded.

“Imagining the third Reconstruction in dexterous places of the future brings a smile to my face,” says Cashin. “Such places could embody what radicals envisioned centuries before—what might have been, had integrating, insurgent colonials been politically enfranchised and left to their own devices.”

Loving adds to a growing body of work for those seeking to learn about—and unlearn—the racist and sexist ideology on which our country was founded. If you’re looking for a deep dive into the Lovings and their case, Sheryll Cashin’s is probably not that book. But for those looking to better grasp how and why interracial intimacy in the United States is both highly stigmatized and irrefutably common, look no further.