01/16/2013 11:43 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2013

Obama Inauguration II: Reflections on Loving and the American Experience

On the occasion of Barack Obama's second inauguration, I recall one moment from election night 2008 that hit me emotionally. While the presidential outcome was already evident by that time the results came in from Virginia, there was something about those particular results that jarred something in my memory.

I remembered something about Virginia. Not from a reading of ancient history, but rather something recent enough to be in my personal memory. I was in high school when I remember reading about a then not-yet-resolved court case. Loving vs. Virginia was perhaps the most appropriately and ironically named court case in the history of American jurisprudence. I wrote a paper about what seemed to me was an absolutely bizarre case.

Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter were residents of Virginia. He was white; she was of mixed African American and Native American ancestry. They lived in Virginia. They were in love and wished to marry, something prohibited by Virginia's Racial Integrity Act which banned marriage between any white and any nonwhite person. So they were married in the District of Columbia.

They returned to live in Virginia. One night a group of police officers broke into their bedroom and arrested them for violating Virginia law. When they pointed to their legal marriage certificate (issued by the District of Columbia), this was used as evidence against them in a criminal proceeding. Their actions were defined as "miscegenation", a felony under Virginia law. They were charged, pled guilty and were sentenced to a year in prison suspended on the condition that they leave the State of Virginia for 25 years.

The trial judge's ruling read, in part, "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay, and red. 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."

Ancient history? When the Supreme Court finally ruled that the Virginia miscegenation laws violated the Constitution of the United States, Barack Obama was six years old.


As a social scientist and having studied attitudes and behaviors my whole life, I saw the election of Barack Obama as especially hopeful moment. Most people believe that behaviors follow attitudes. As a social scientist, I know that the far stronger relationship is in the other direction: attitudes follow behaviors far more than attitudes drive behaviors. And in no area is this relationship more dramatically evident than in race relations. Fundamental changes in racial attitudes in this country, for example, came only after federally-imposed and enforced legal desegregation mandates.

So while I saw the election of Barack Obama as a reflection of real changes in attitudes, everything in my education, training, and observations of human behavior suggested that the far more dramatic changes would result from his election. The results, of course have been uneven. I did not foresee, for example, the intensity of racially-tinged "birther" arguments and other similar nonsense. On the other hand, these are clearly discredited and minority perspectives: Barack Obama is the first American president to be elected twice with more than 51 percent of the vote since Dwight Eisenhower. That is not at all insignificant. The "birthers" are a small and discredited though vociferous minority.

My own discussions with friends of my high school and college-aged kids have shown me that they view racial issues entirely differently from their elders. Indeed, for many who have grown up in racially mixed environments, they often don't even notice race at all. Many in my parents' generation grew up thinking segregation would last forever, I grew up thinking it was wrong and witnessed its destruction, my kids' generation thinks of it as incomprehensible. That is very real progress.

And, as for the future, consider that when we next inaugurate a president in 2017, there will be no high school student in America that has any significant personal recall of a white American president. I, for one, think that is pretty cool.