Octoroon. Quadroon. Aryan.
In the year 2019, these were some of the hideous choices folks wanting to marry in Virginia could select under the heading of race. Sure, there were other options, and the list wasn’t uniform among the various localities. Some choices weren’t as incendiary.
But the point is – under state law – couples had to pick a designation when they got a marriage license.
Thankfully, a federal judge put the kibosh on this nonsense, dragging the commonwealth into the 20th century.
That’s not a typo. Virginia always plays catch-up when it comes to race and equality. We’re often decades late.
(As an aside, I dusted off my 1987 marriage certificate from New York. My wife and I didn’t have to supply a race on the form up North. And that was 32 years ago.)
It’s not for nothing the commonwealth was at the center of the Loving v. Virginia case at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, in which the justices unanimously struck down laws banning interracial marriage. As if the state should’ve had any role in determining who you can love and marry.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Rossie Alston ruled Virginia’s current law on designating race on marriage licenses is unconstitutional. Three couples had filed suit challenging the law.
“[R]equiring plaintiffs to disclose their race in order to receive marriage licenses burdens their fundamental right to marry,” Alston wrote in the 19-page decision for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
“The Commonwealth of Virginia is naturally rich in its greatest traditions,” he continued. “But like other institutions, the stain of past mistakes, misgivings and discredited legislative mandates must always survive the scrutiny of our nation’s most important institution … the Constitution of the United States of America.”
Longtime civil rights lawyer Victor Glasberg, of Alexandria, represented the plaintiffs. He publicly applauded the ruling, but not without a dig at the government: “The only unfortunate part is that it took a United States district judge to strike a Jim Crow provision that the state of Virginia insisted on defending in court.”
In case you were wondering, the dictionary defines “octoroon” as a person of one-eighth black ancestry. “Quadroon” is someone of one-fourth black ancestry. They weren’t terms of endearment.
“Aryan” is used in Nazism to designate a supposed master race of non-Jewish Caucasians having especially Nordic features.
Octoroon and quadroon are dated terms now considered offensive. More recently, Aryan has been used by groups with racist ideologies. Yet those designations were options you could pick on government forms in Virginia in the 21st century.
The lawsuit said Virginia was one of just eight states asking couples to identify their race before they can marry. That’s us: Stuck in the past, on the wrong side of history, holding out to the bitter end.
It’s noteworthy state Attorney General Mark Herring had recently provided a legal dodge for officials collecting the information. Herring notified clerks in September there was no specific requirement that applicants had to provide the race info. He also said clerks should issue a license regardless of an applicant’s answer – or lack of – to the race question.
As Judge Alston noted, however, the clause was still in the Code of Virginia. “And considering past failed legislative amendments to the statute at issue,” he wrote, “it may not be repealed for quite some time.”
The intrusion on individual privacy was bad enough. What’s even more complicated is what people call themselves nowadays, given the increasing rates of intermarriage. The Loving decision has no doubt played a role in those numbers, as well as evolving societal norms.
The Pew Research Center noted that in 2015, 17% of all U.S. newlyweds had a spouse of a different race or ethnicity. That marked a significant increase since 1967, when 3% of newlyweds were intermarried.
“More broadly, one-in-ten married people in 2015 – not just those who recently married – had a spouse of a different race or ethnicity,” the report continued. “This translates into 11 million people who were intermarried.”
We shouldn’t have to put that fact on a form, though, just to secure a marriage license. It’s past time for Virginia to catch up with the rest of the country.