More Loving Families and Fewer Barry Blacks

My life has always been multiracial. As a kid in Richmond, Virginia, my mom was white and my dad was black. We moved to Virginia in 1976 a mere 9 years after the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that the state’s anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.

When we were out at restaurants as a family, there would be looks of curiosity and hostility. I understand why now. Just a decade before, my parents could have been arrested for being married. The Lovings were banished from Virginia for 25 years before the Supreme Court ruled in their favor.

As a kid the only way my biraciality really impacted me psychically is when I was in the supermarket. Every time I went to the local Safeway with my mom when I was 5, I reminded myself: if I get lost and separated from my mother, remember to tell the manager, “my mom is white.” I think I was worried that if the overhead speakers announced a lost brown girl, that only black women would show up to claim me.

Now as an adult, my family is still biracial. My husband is white and so is our son. When my son was a baby, and I was pushing him in his stroller around Brooklyn, I’m pretty sure most people thought I was his nanny.

I tend to be a racial optimist. I think we all have more in common than we have separating us. We can learn to understand each other’s perspectives if we communicate.

There’s not a lot of racial strife in my day-to-day world, until it comes crashing in from outside. After the November election, all of my racial optimism was shattered in pieces on the floor. I thought – wrongly as it turned out—that Donald Trump’s racism was disqualifying. It wasn’t.

And now we have the deadly events in Charlottesville to process.

Charlottesville is a few hours drive from where I grew up in Richmond. On weekends when I was a youngster, we’d drive over to Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s plantation) and eat at Michie Tavern. When I was young Monticello tours downplayed slavery and focused on “Jefferson the great man.” Now, to its credit, Monticello tours incorporate harsh reality of the hundreds of slaves who also called that beautiful corner of the world home.

The Jefferson we all have to deal with today is complex. He too-- DNA now shows-- had a multiracial family in addition to his white family. As much as we want him to be a hero in the story, he never freed his slave Sally Hemings even as he had multiple children with her. Jefferson was surely a brilliant Renaissance man. But his ability to be a politician, a writer and an inventor was surely enabled by all of the forced labor around him taking care of the hard, dirtier labor.

Growing up, my family would also visit UVA, Jefferson’s University, and one of his crowning achievements. When I was 14, I helped my father, who was an artist, teach a course on sculpting at UVA to Virginia high school teachers in a National Endowment for the Humanities program. I remember it was a little awkward because a friend’s mother was in the class. I have fond memories of that summer in Charlottesville. Like Monticello, UVA is lovely.

And so watching the racial violence on TV in August 2017 in Charlottesville hit close to home in many ways. I always knew there were violent racists on the fringes of American society, and that they never ceased to exist, even as the majority of the country went the way of the unanimous Loving Supreme Court towards racial tolerance.

As a constitutional law professor I’ve taught Virginia v. Black a 2003 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that a KKK member Barry Black could not be convicted of a crime under Virginia’s cross-burning statute because the law unconstitutionally presumed all cross-burnings are intended to intimidate. But even as he won at the Supreme Court, I knew there are few Barry Blacks in the world. What worries me now is that the racist fringe is being mainstreamed and emboldened.

Yet I wanted to write this to remind you, my fellow Americans, of the quite racial peace that happens within multiracial families in 2017. How we live our lives with love and respect doesn’t crash into your living room the way racial division does. But we exist and are happening. We stand as a quiet antidote to the virulent hate. I suspect that there are far more of us than there are neo-Nazis in America right now. Don’t forget that as they take over the cable news cycle and bombard your twitter feed with images of torches and deadly car crashes. The Loving families are here too.


Ciara Torres-Spelliscy is an associate professor of law at Stetson University College of Law, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and the author of Corporate Citizen?: An Argument for the Separation of Corporation and State.

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