[This essay aired on WAMC on July 30, 2016. To listen to the essay, click here.]
"Almighty God created the races…and he placed them on separate continents. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."
These were the very words used by a judge in Virginia in 1965 to defend the US states’ segregation laws that prohibited interracial unions.
I was listening to the radio in my car when I first heard these words. It was a review on the BBC about a new film called “Loving,” which tells the tale of the couple who took the battle to make interracial marriage legal in America to the Supreme Court and won. I was with my husband. He is British and white. I am an American of Japanese ancestry. Immediately I thought: had we been born at an earlier time, not that far in the past, we could not be together—certainly not in Virginia, and in many other states besides.
Then I started thinking about the judge. He was a white man named Leon Bazile and unless he considers himself a Native American, he must have realized that he’s from a different continent.
And what did his God think about the fact that the judge’s antecedents had killed off and pushed into a corner many of the original peoples?
But more puzzling is why his race, having gotten rid of the Native Americans, had gone to the trouble of bringing over a third race—Black people—from a completely different continent, Africa, to join them?
But wait, there’s more. In the mid 1800’s his people decided not to bring any more Black people over and instead invade Asia and brought over a bunch of yellow people from a fourth continent.
So if they’re the ones who engineered it all, why are they so upset? And why did they want to leave their own God-given continent in the first place?
And there’s the rub. Who is to blame for this messy American situation? It seems pretty obvious that it’s the indigenous people’s fault for always getting in the way by being wherever they are first. Then the Blacks are guilty of allowing themselves to be forcibly brought to a continent to which they don’t belong. And then those Asian arrivistes whose plans to isolate themselves on their own continent didn’t work and have the nerve to complain after being generously invited to work as contract laborers.
What did they expect? Equal rights and justice for all?
While I say this tongue in cheek, the true story of America has always been in conflict with the story of America that we like to tell ourselves and the world. It’s the one where we point to our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, which says all men are created equal and have inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But a quick look at one of the first laws passed by the newly formed continental congress—The Naturalization Act of 1790—which gave rights of citizenship only to Free White Men, will tell you that while I may joke and jest about the judge’s version of the world, it is a closer approximation of how race and justice has always worked in America.
From the very beginning, race mattered. It determined who was eligible to become a citizen. Who could vote and who could buy land. And as the story of the Lovings will tell you, race also played a role in who can court and marry.
While much has changed and each group (including many minority white populations) has had to fight for their rights, if you’re white, you can eventually blend. This doesn’t necessarily hold true for people of color.
So the question is, does race matter?
We wish it didn’t. But it does.
So the real question is what do we do about it?
One, celebrate the differences?
Two, create zones and build fences?
Or here’s a more “modest” proposal: Take the judge’s words literally, honor what he believed to be God’s plan and have all races return to their respective continents and leave this place to its original peoples.
Or build on what’s already started. America is a work in progress. The message the world hears is that in America, whatever our responsibilities to the collective, the rights of the individual also matter.
Rather than retreating into our tribes, building walls and hoarding weapons, I would hope that humans can find it in themselves to see beyond the superficial matters of skin color and find instead the essential humanity in us all. To find our capacity for peace, for harmony and indeed for Loving.
My Yellow Bowl Project hopes to spur discussion around these questions: Who is an American? What does citizenship mean? How long do you have to be in the US to be considered a bonafide member of this group?