Today, we know that “race is a political and social construct.”
That was not the case in 1967 when the US Supreme Court decided, unanimously, to strike down Virginia’s law prohibiting marriage between “races” in Loving v Virginia.
In 1958, two residents of Virginia, Mildred Jeter, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, were married in the District of Columbia. The Lovings returned to Virginia shortly thereafter. The couple was then charged with violating the state’s antimiscegenation statute, which banned inter-racial marriages. The Lovings were found guilty and sentenced to a year in jail (the trial judge agreed to suspend the sentence if the Lovings would leave Virginia and not return for 25 years).
The Court ruled that making law which made distinctions between people based upon race were “odious to a free people.” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the majority opinion for the Court:
Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.
Race as a social construct
As Scientific American noted in 2016, the idea that race has no genetic basis is not new. American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, the “founding father of American sociology,” began questioning race as a type of genetics in 1898.
Drawing from his award-winning 2015 book, “The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology,” [Aldon D. Morris, professor of sociology at Northwestern University] traced how, as early as 1898, Du Bois, the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, was conducting important sociological research with a team of fellow African-American scholars at Atlanta University.
In that speech at Harvard in 2018:
Morris argued how the scholar’s work has been systematically ignored for decades. In a larger context, he depicted this as a racist choice that has had implications for his field of scholarship, for academia, and for American society.
From that 2016 issue of Scientific American:
What the study of complete genomes from different parts of the world has shown is that even between Africa and Europe, for example, there is not a single absolute genetic difference, meaning no single variant where all Africans have one variant and all Europeans another one, even when recent migration is disregarded.
Imagine you are living on the east coast of mid-18th century North America, where slavery permeates the southern borders. According to historian Barbara J. Fields:
Americans of European descent invented race during the era of the American Revolution as a way of resolving the contradiction between a natural right to freedom and the fact of slavery.
That argument places “race” in the context of “Black” and “White.”
But in 1776, the German scientist Johan Friedrich Blumenbach divided mankind into five categories in his book On the Natural Variety of Mankind: “Caucasian, the white race; Mongolian, the yellow race; Malayan, the brown race, Ethiopian, the black race, and American, the red race.”
Lest you think that contradictions about “race” were resolved with the 14th Amendment to the Constitution:
[Under US law], people of Mexican birth or ancestry were “white” until the 1930 Census snatched that privilege back. Since then, their status — white or Hispanic — has flip-flopped several more times, all depending largely on whatever the current thinking was about their role in labor or immigration.
Similarly, courts went back and forth in the early 20th century about whether people from Japan were white, finally deciding in 1933 that they weren’t, based on “the common understanding of the white man.”
I also bring you the controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.