Opinion: How the Lovings changed our American lives

'Loving' depicts one couple's fight for the right to love_00012226.jpg
'Loving' depicts one couple's fight for the right to love
02:45 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Lisa Kennedy was film critic for the Denver Post for 13 years and its theater critic for three. She lives in Denver with her partner, Becky, and their two dogs and is currently at work on a book of conversations with African-American influencers about the movies that shaped them. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

Lisa Kennedy: New film, 'Loving', about couple in landmark Supreme Court case that ruled laws against interracial marriages unconstitutional

Kennedy's parents were interracial and she is in interracial relationship; recent research showed some still register disgust at such unions

Kennedy: I prefer to focus on the research subjects who did not respond that way as a hopeful sign for America's progress

CNN  — 

In 1958, Mildred Dolores Jeter and Richard Perry Loving got married. A few months later, they were snatched out of their bed, arrested in the middle of the night, jailed, tried and exiled from their home state of Virginia for 25 years.

Lisa Kennedy

In 1963, they became plaintiffs in what would become a landmark Supreme Court case. Loving v. Virginia ruled that anti-marriage laws based on race were unconstitutional. At the time the couple took their vows – in neighboring Washington, D.C. – 24 states had anti-miscegenation laws on the books. When the court rendered its unanimous decision in 1967, 16 states still did.

The Lovings are at the heart of a new film, “Loving,” opening this week – as it happens, during the final days of a loud, divisive election, which itself is taking place in a year that has seen America’s unending divisions over race flare again and again.

But far from adding to this disheartening din, the film’s lead actors, Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton, deliver quietly commanding performances. Befitting its protagonists, “Loving” is a hushed work that shimmers with grace.

Since seeing an early preview screening some months ago, I have had the tender, almost accidental heroics of the Lovings very much on my mind. In this moment of hashtagged, trending fury, the movie reminded me that gentleness, too, has its role in transforming the lives of Americans.

Old Navy ad
Old Navy attacked for interracial ad
00:55 - Source: CNN

I marveled at what the Lovings and their ACLU lawyers achieved. Marveled at the ways laws have been dismantled and remade to make us freer as individuals, and better as a democracy. Their triumph was ours as a nation. It was one of those too-long coming, hard-fought, “better angels” success stories.

But my reverie was upended recently when I saw a headline in the Washington Post: “Study: Interracial Couples Trigger Disgust.”

Most people in the United States say they accept interracial relationships, but a new study of brain activity shows some hidden bias. Researchers surveyed …

Ouch, I thought, as one half of an interracial couple. As the child of an interracial couple: double ouch. Born in 1960, I was put up for adoption because my birth parents, a black father and white mother, had seen the ways societal reactions to their relationship were affecting their young son, my oldest sibling. Or so our family lore goes.

While I feel blessedly fated to have landed with my adoptive family, the Kennedys, I am also struck by the notion that bigotry ruptured my family of origin. I have more than a tender spot for the Lovings.

It turns out the researchers cited in the Post article – Allison Skinner and Caitlin Hudac, whose paper is to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology -- had an even grabbier, more stinging headline: “Yuck, You Disgust Me: Affective Bias Against Interracial Couples.”

Conducted at the University of Nebraska, the research found that while most of their undergraduate-age subjects said they accepted black-and-white couples, their brain activity suggested otherwise. Their brains registered “disgust.” More specifically “images of interracial couples evoke a neural disgust response…increased insula activation relative to images of same-race couples.”

The pair’s objective was to investigate the hypothesis that a certain type of disgust – that concerned with purity – found people, not just their behavior, disgusting. From this form of disgust it was an easy leap to dehumanization. History is rife with examples of how dehumanization makes the violence of bigotry so much easier.

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TV's 'first' interracial kiss
00:30 - Source: CNN

One of the impressive things about bigots is just how comfortable they are in their bigotry. That certitude has often been buttressed by institutions. The Virginia judge that sent the Lovings packing stated in his decision, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, 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.”

Judge Leon Bazile also stated “their marriage went against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.” Disgust rationalized (poorly) and codified.

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This election cycle seems to resonate with the study’s findings. We’ve heard calls for a kind of national purity, seen examples of the rationalizing of disgust with “the other,” and watched a presidential candidate promising – in ways coded and not – to make that revulsion the law of the land. But Loving is one reminder that our problems – and our possibilities – preceded the election and have to be tended to regardless of November 8’s victor.

While the study would seem to confirm the worst – that bigotry is hard-wired – shouldn’t we also pay heed to the students who stated acceptance. Is their enlightened, fair-minded response evidence of “politically-correct” subterfuge or of a pluralist society making inroads?: because of anti-discrimination litigation, because of real lives lived in real places throughout the country, and yes, because of pop cultural images. Their acceptance is something to doggedly build on, not dismantle for political gain.

The “yuck” paper contains its own complicated assertions. For instance, insula activation “has also been associated with empathy and uncertainty,” according to the study’s authors. That gave me pause – and hope. I found myself asking more questions of this social science research’s presumptions than settling into answers.

But empathy? Here’s what happened in the movie: Once the ACLU took up the Lovings cause, the media became involved. An interesting scene in “Loving” comes when Life photographer Grey Villet arrives to take photos of the couple and their children. And it’s the photographer’s still images that activated a nation’s interest in this modest and mighty couple. Shy? Yes. Unassuming? Sure. Sweet? Yep. Disgust? I dare you.