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Creighton hosts two-day event to commemorate Loving v. Virginia ruling

Loving v. Virginia eventRace. Identity. Relationships. Power. These were the main themes in last week’s two-day event, “50 Years of Loving: Seeking Justice Through Love and Relationships,” hosted by Creighton University’s 2040 Initiative and the Werner Institute. More than 150 people participated in the event.

Loving v. Virginia is a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. The case involved Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Loving, a black woman. They were charged in Virginia with the felony of miscegenation – or mixing races – and were told their marriage was invalid.

Creighton’s two-day event kicked off last Thursday with a talk by Mat Johnson, author of the 2015 book Loving Day. Semi-autobiographical in nature, Johnson read passages from his book and spoke about his own upbringing and struggles with race and identity.

Mat JohnsonJohnson, 46, was born three years after the Loving decision to a black mother and white father. He feels his own identity has undergone immense change from how he saw himself in childhood to how he sees himself today.

“When I was born, I was not mixed or interracial or biracial. I was black,” Johnson said. “Where I grew up in Philadelphia, you were either black or white. If you had a black mother and grew up in that community, you were black. I never questioned if I was black. I questioned whether people would see me as black. There was no real mixed identity at the time.

“When I did see people who identified as mixed [race] post-Loving, I looked at them as people avoiding the stigma and avoiding the difficulties of being black in America,” Johnson continued.

Things changed for Johnson in 1990 when the U.S. Census started asking questions about multiracial people. Suddenly, one could identify as more than either just black or white. Johnson admits he was initially threatened by the new choices.

“I felt it could take away the blackness that I fought for,” Johnson, who now identifies with being black and Irish, said. “I had a ‘great mulatto breakdown’ when I was in my 30s when I met a fellow writer at an African-American writers conference who treated me with suspicion of not really being a member of the black community.

“I eventually realized I could never make everyone happy with how I saw myself and my own relation to race, “Johnson continued. “I focused on making myself happy with how I identified. Ultimately, race is a strategy. Race doesn’t exist. It’s something we use to deal with ethnicity and class. We use it to keep one race or class in power.”

That notion carried over to Friday’s all-day symposium, which included sessions led by scholars from Creighton University School of Law and throughout the country, as well as community leaders from Omaha and the surrounding area. Paul McGreal, JD, LLM, dean of the School of Law, gave the opening address.

A special highlight of the day was looking at the past, present and future of the Loving decision. Participants also took part in interactive exercises and group discussions.

Loving v. Virginia event panelThe symposium didn’t entirely focus on relationships between blacks and whites, but also called into question how people of other multiracial backgrounds and sexual orientation look at themselves and their place in the world.

Nicholas Mirkay, PhD, Creighton School of Law associate dean for administration and planning and a law professor, spoke about coming out at work in the late 1990s and how his own identity has evolved since.

“My partner and I adopted a child together, our son, Noah, who is now 10. But we didn’t want to get married until gay marriage was possible in all 50 states,” Mirkay said. “The Loving decision didn’t impact just interracial couples, but all families. Noah felt a need for marriage and kept telling us ‘we [as a cohesive family unit] needed to get married.’”

Mirkay and his partner married after the 2015 Supreme Court decision in the Obergefell v. Hodges case that granted all Americans regardless of gender or sexual orientation the right to marry.

Emiliano Lerda, executive director of the Omaha-based nonprofit Justice for Our Neighbors, is a firm believer in ongoing dialogue “so that not only can we love the people we want, but we grow more accepting and tolerant of those different from us.” The Argentine native first came to the U.S. as a high school exchange student, attended undergraduate and law school in this country and married a native Iowan. Immigrants to the U.S. also don’t always have an easy time, Lerda said.

“It’s easy to demonize people and to hate them,” Lerda said. “But in interpersonal relationships, whether it’s playing football together or going to school together or whatever – that’s what changes minds.”

The symposium took about a year to plan, with several Creighton University personnel playing key roles, including Palma Joy Strand, PhD, professor of law and director of the 2040 Initiative; Jacqueline Font-Guzmán, PhD, professor of law and director of the Werner Institute; and Amanda Guidero, PhD, fellow of conflict management at the Werner Institute.

“Advice and support from the community were essential to the symposium’s success,” Strand said.

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