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The Election of Barack Obama and the Politics of Interracial and Same-Sex Marriage

The election (and now the inauguration) of Barack Obama has inspired a widespread sense of awe at the scope and scale of change in race relations in America—and more than a hint of self-congratulation.

The news media just can’t seem to resist trumpeting the example of interracial marriage. When Barack Obama’s white mother married his black father in 1961, reporters remind us, their marriage would have been illegal in more than a dozen states. See how far we’ve come, they enthuse, falling into the trap of assuming that the legality of interracial marriage is proof that racism and white supremacy have disappeared into thin air and a colorblind utopia is on the way.

As someone who has spent nearly two decades studying the history of interracial marriage in America, I want to suggest that at a moment when talk of change seems to be everywhere, we could use a bit less celebration--and a lot more reflection.

A good place to start is by recognizing the full depth and breadth of the elaborate structure of laws American once erected to prevent interracial marriage, or, in the usage of the day, “miscegenation.” Between 1890 and 1948, miscegenation laws were in force in 30 American states, and they prohibited whites from marrying Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, and American Indians as well as blacks. Supported by more than 90 percent of the white population, legal bans on interracial marriage show that marriage played a fundamental role in the creation of Jim Crow structures of racism and white supremacy. It took opponents of these laws nearly a century to persuade state legislatures to repeal them and courts to declare them unconstitutional. When the U.S. Supreme Court finally did so, in the 1967 case of Loving v. Virginia, American democracy took a big step forward.

It does not, however, follow that interracial marriage is synonymous with colorblindness or that the end of racism is at hand. Generations of lawyers had to fight to make interracial marriage a legal right. Many of them thought colorblindness was a wonderful idea, but few were naive enough to believe it actually existed. Today the assertion that America is a colorblind nation is so commonplace that even the most conservative of Supreme Court justices are eager to wrap themselves in its mantle. Yet forty years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia, marriages between blacks and whites are still the rarest form of interracial marriage, and interracial couples still face a host of challenges, from stares on the street to confusion on the faces of their children’s teachers and playmates. And in yet another example of racism’s shape-shifting power, America’s prisons, police, schools, and housing markets offer daily evidence of how easy it is for claims of colorblindness to co-exist with, and even enable, new forms of white entitlement.

The wily tenacity of racism is not the only problem worth reflecting on. On the night that Barack Obama was elected president, voters in California, Florida, and Arizona passed measures outlawing same-sex marriage; in Arkansas they outlawed gay and lesbian adoptions. Like reporters, gay and lesbian activists often bring up the example of interracial marriage. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Loving they contend that opponents of same-sex marriage today are just as misguided as opponents of interracial marriage once were. I’ve made this argument myself. But if there is an eerie similarity between the turn-of-the-20th-century claim that interracial marriage was unnatural and the turn-of-the-21st-century claim that same-sex marriage is unnatural, there is also an important difference.

When opponents of interracial marriage succeeded in outlawing, criminalizing, and stigmatizing interracial marriage (and labeling it “unnatural,” too), their victories came in state legislatures, courts, and public opinion. Despite several attempts, they never managed to pass a federal law banning interracial marriage. There was, in other words, nothing like the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which limits the federal definition of marriage to couples made up of one man and one woman. DOMA, which was passed during the Clinton administration, ensures that even those gay and lesbian couples who are lucky enough to live in the very few states that allow same-sex marriage are barred from federal benefits routinely extended to married couples, like social security survivor’s benefits, joint tax filing, and a host of others.

Barack Obama has expressed both his opposition to same-sex marriage and a core belief that gay and lesbian couples are entitled to all the rights, state and federal, that heterosexual married couples now enjoy. My hope is that as president he will bring meaningful change to the marriage politics of our time by urging Congress to repeal DOMA. If it’s good to remind ourselves, now and then, of how far we’ve come, it’s even better to keep a clear-eyed focus on where we still need to go.