IN response to lawsuits filed by
three couples challenging a state
requirement that they reveal their race in order to obtain a Virginia marriage license, Attorney General Mark Herring recently sent a memo to all clerks of court in the commonwealth telling them to “issue a license regardless of an applicant’s answer or non-answer to that inquiry.”
“These changes will ensure that no Virginian will be forced to label themselves in order to get married,” Herring said in a statement.
Brandyn Churchill and Sophie Rogers, both of white European descent, said that when they applied for a marriage license in Rockbridge County, they were given a printed list of 230 racial categories to choose from, including: “Amish”; “Aryan”; “Blanc”; “Chicano”; “Hebrew”; “Hindu”; “Islamic”; “Mestizo”; “Mulatto”; “Nordic”; “Quadroon”; “Teutonic”; and “White American.” When they refused to pick one, they didn’t get their license.
Some of the terminology was used in the past as an attempt by white supremacists to enforce the infamous “one-drop rule” that declared that a person with even a drop of black blood was classified as black, even if on the surface they could—and often did—“pass for white.” For example, “quadroon” is an antiquated term to describe a person who is genetically one-fourth African American and three-fourths white.
Churchill and Rogers say they are proceeding with their lawsuit regardless of Herring’s memo. “We believe that the AG’s guidance is a welcome first step,” Churchill said. “However, we will continue to challenge the constitutionality of the statute, so that the decision cannot be reversed by a change of position or attorney general.”
There are obviously not even close to 230 races, and many of the categories on the list—such as “Zoroastrian”—are religions, not races. Removing this vestigial remnant of slavery and segregation from state law should be a no-brainer.
Ironically, some civil rights activists who rely on racial data from the government to monitor anti-discrimination laws don’t see it that way. For example, Syracuse University Law Professor Kevin Maillard, who studies interracial marriages, told the Washington Post that, “I think with the deep history of racial strife we have in the United States, these categories are going to remain incredibly important.” But the Census Bureau already collects this information.
Another irony is that despite their historical baggage, some of those old discredited terms more accurately reflect today’s racial reality than the simplistic black/white categories in widespread use today.
For example, a study of DNA samples from five genetic testing sites by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. found that virtually all African Americans living in the U.S. today have at least some European blood, with their white ancestry averaging between 19 and 29 percent. Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, who both had slave mothers and white fathers, were referred to in their day as “mulattoes”—another antiquated and discredited term on the state marriage license application, but one that clearly identified them as multi-racial.
Fifty years after the 1967 Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia that the commonwealth’s anti-miscegenation law was unconstitutional, interracial marriages have increased fivefold, from 3 percent in 1967 to 17 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. The result of more interracial marriages and immigration is that more and more Americans are multi-racial.
Couples should be able to get a marriage license in Virginia without having to wade through a ridiculous list of bogus and outdated racial categories. Their genetic ancestry is nobody’s business but their own.