In 1958, when my mother, who was white, and father, who was black, wanted to get married in Nebraska, it was illegal for them to wed. So they decided to go next door to Iowa, a state that was progressive enough to allow interracial marriage. My mom’s brother tried to have the Nebraska state police bar her from leaving the state so she couldn’t marry my dad, which was only the latest legal indignity she had endured. She had been arrested on my parents’ first date, accused of prostitution. (The conventional thought of the time being: Why else would a white woman be seen with a black man?)
On their wedding day, somehow, my parents made it out of Nebraska without getting arrested again, and were wed in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on March 1, 1958. This was five years before Nebraska would strike down its laws against interracial marriage, and almost a decade before the Supreme Court would outlaw miscegenation laws throughout the country in Loving v. Virginia.
When the good state of Iowa conferred the dignity of civic recognition on my parents’ relationship — a relationship some members of their own families thought was deviant and immoral, that the civil authorities of Nebraska had tried to destroy, and that even some of my mom’s college-educated friends believed would produce children striped like zebras — our family began. And by the time my father died, their interracial marriage was seen just as a marriage, and an admirable 45-year one at that.
I suppose some of you will say that the “libertarian” position in 1958 was that the state has no place in marriage, and so the libertarian, as such, would have had nothing to say about the refusal of many states to recognize marriages between mixed-race couples. But in the world as it was, this stance would have amounted to an active refusal to resist the law’s codification of racial discrimination and segregation. It would have made one a silent partner in injustice. Those making similar arguments today will have to excuse me if I find this stance disgraceful. Many libertarians think there ought to be no government regulation of the economy, for example, but do not hesitate to take the practice for granted when they loudly opine about the extent and structure of regulation. Few say, “There should be no regulation, and so I, as a libertarian, have no opinion about how it should be carried out.” Yet I hear again and again that, since the state should not be in the business of marriage, one should not, as a libertarian, have an opinion about how this business is to be carried out. Increasingly, I find this an obnoxious and shameful form of moral recusal. One cannot use an ideological image of perfect justice to excuse or ignore an obvious injustice within the actual imperfect system. That these injustices could not arise within one’s vision of the best society does not mean that they have not in fact arisen. That a debate would not occur in an ideal world does not mean that it is not occuring or that nothing morally hangs on its conclusion. To decide to sit out the debate, with an eye on utopia, is not a way to keep one’s hands clean.