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Eighteenth-Century Racism in Twenty-First Century America (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi It doesn’t take much thought to realize that Keith Bardwell’s animus against black and white couples is merely symbo...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

It doesn’t take much thought to realize that Keith Bardwell’s animus against black and white couples is merely symbolic of a recrudescence of eighteenth-century racism in twenty-first century forms. In the eighteenth century, German physician and anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, on the basis of his analysis of human skulls, taxonomized the human family into five races: Caucasian or white race, Mongolian or yellow race, Malayan or brown race, Negroid or black race, and American or red race.

This arbitrary division of the human family is often fingered as the foundation for scientific racism and would be used by eighteenth-century American judges as the intellectual and moral basis for the promulgation of so-called anti-miscegenation laws (laws that forbade interracial marriage or interracial sex) in a misguided bid to police racial boundaries.

Of course, one of the reasons interracial marriage was frowned upon by advocates of racial purism was because its products disrupt the easy certainties of Blumenbach’s racial taxonomies. As Yale University professor of history Glenda Gilmore noted, interracial liaisons “resulted in mixed race progeny who slipped back and forth across the color line and defied social control.”

But that’s not the only reason white supremacists frown at interracial marriage. Some of them believe that racial mixing only improves the intelligence of black people but leaves intact their so-called innate moral depravity. Thus, according to them, interracial marriage only produces intelligent criminals.

However, all race-based legal restraints on marriage in America were lifted in 1967. And this was, as is well known, the consequence of the famous legal battle against these discriminatory laws by a white and black couple known as Richard and Mildred Loving. They were natives of the southern state of Virginia.

Richard Loving, a white man, married Mildred, a black woman, in 1958 in Washington D.C., a contiguous territory where there were no laws against interracial marriage. (Washington D.C. and the state of Virginia are analogous, in more ways than one, to Abuja and Niger State in Nigeria). When the couple returned to their native Virginia, however, they were arrested while relaxing in their bedroom. They were later charged with and convicted of contravening Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law, also called the Racial Integrity Act.

In 1963, the couple, who had escaped again to Washington DC, decided to appeal the judgment. But the trial court Judge Leon Bazile declined to review his decision. Instead, he argued passionately in favor of racial segregation, writing, in echoes of German physician Johann Blumenbach, that:

"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, and red, and he placed them on separate 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."

Frustrated, the Lovings appealed against the ruling to the Supreme Court of Virginia, which predictably endorsed the legality of the state's Racial Integrity Act. With the help of several liberal groups, the Lovings turned to the all-white U.S Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws are unconstitutional and "designed to maintain White supremacy.” In a landmark ruling, it said:

"Marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival.... To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not to marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State."

The first southern state to repeal its anti-miscegenation law even before the U.S. Supreme Court gave its ruling was Maryland (another state that is as close to Washington D.C. as Nassarawa State is to Abuja in Nigeria). Immediately after the Supreme Court ruling, 17 Southern states, with the exception of South Carolina and Alabama, formally expunged the anti-miscegenation laws from their state constitutions.

South Carolina and Alabama repealed theirs only in 1998 and 2000 respectively, although the laws had been virtually ineffective. In the respective referendums that preceded the repeal of the laws, 62 percent of voters in South Carolina and 59 percent of voters in Alabama voted in favor of interracial marriage.

Gallup surveys indicate that only 48 percent of Americans approved of marriage between blacks and whites as recently as 1994. In 2007 it rose to 77 percent.

Keith Bardwell is obviously among the 23 percent of Americans who still oppose marriage between black and white people. And, apparently, he has many fans in the Republican Party. According to Newsweek, only recently, on the Republican Party’s Facebook page, a conservative fan uploaded a racially incendiary image of Obama eating chicken (a popular unflattering stereotype of black people here) with the following caption: “Miscegenation is a CRIME against American values. Repeal Loving v. Virginia.”

So, you see, in refusing to officiate the wedding of a black and white couple, Keith Bardwell has only provided an outlet for the ventilation of pent-up, eighteenth-century-type racial segregationist sentiments by people who are still helplessly held prisoner in a time warp. But with about 8 and a half million interracial marriages in America and counting, Bardwell and people who think like him are fighting a lost battle.

Related Article: 
Eighteenth-Century Racism in Twenty-First Century America (I)


  1. You can't really "repeal" a Supreme Court decision. "Reverse" would be a better word. So, in addition to being racist, they also suffer from poor diction.

  2. Good one, Matt. I didn't realize that you can only reverse but not repeal a Supreme Court decision.


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