Listen to this story
I was born in the United States legally, but I almost wasn’t.
At least if you look at it a certain way, I almost wasn’t.
Had I been born earlier by only three years, I would have been born to illegal parents. At least, I would have been born to parents who were married illegally. And from what I understand by our government’s language and judicial system, if you do something illegal then you are, yourself, considered “illegal.”
My parents would have done something illegal by marrying each other and would therefore have been, themselves, illegal. That would have effectively made it illegal for me to be born in my own country.
Thankfully, there was a brave couple that fought the good fight years before my parent’s marriage. Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving had been sentenced to a year in prison for marrying each other and bravely fought their way all the way to the Supreme Court, which eventually ruled against laws that banned inter-racial marriage.
Technically legal, but still wrong
Though legally married, my Black father was routinely harassed–by both police and bystanders–for walking with his white wife. It may have been legal in the eyes of the supreme court, but much of the US population still disapproved of inter-racial marriage. The legality of my father’s marriage did not preclude the fact that in the eyes of most, he was still wrong.
My father had other difficulties with legality that were less ambiguous.
When he was younger, he was beaten by police for drinking from a water fountain. It was the law that “coloreds” drink from separate water fountains and, not finding one, he drank from the white water fountain. Though he was not arrested, he paid a heavy enough price. Another time he was chased off a beach that was posted as “No negroes” because of the health codes that protected white swimmers from disease.
I learned much of this history when visiting my father in the 1980s. It was a time of U2 and Peter Gabriel singing about Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko. Me and my white friends saw South Africa as the epitome of barbarism for separating the races like they did in the olden days. As if such a thing was so unthinkable as to not be understandable to us.
My father made it clear to me that many of those denouncing South Africa were the same people who argued against his freedom. Did the beliefs change within their hearts, or did the laws change and merely bury the vocal nature of them? I did not know then that my father was echoing the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., Angela Davis, Malcom X, James Baldwin and hundreds of others.
My father broke the law when he drank that water. My father broke the law when he ran into the water on that beach. My father broke hundreds of law. He spent much of his life being illegal just because he was Black.
Thankfully, those laws changed.
The Rule Of Law
I love the rule of law, partly because I love my country, and my country was founded on the rule of law. But there is a deeper foundational principle I wish we would focus more on: The rule of morality.
Many people do not have to concern themselves with whether a law is just or moral because the laws are written specifically to support them. The law preventing Black people from using convenient water fountains was for the “protection” of white people. Health codes enacted for public beaches were for the protection of white swimmers. White people living with my father could use whatever water fountain they wanted. They were not restricted, they were “protected.”
Such is the way of America. Well before slavery and the Indian Removal Act–and ever since–America has purposefully created laws specifically to control, or concentrate, certain groups of people.
How do we respect the rule of law if the law itself is immoral?
Even laws that are equally applicable to all are unequally applied. Many social science researchers have already noted what the ACLU found, namely that “Black and Latino offenders sentenced in state and federal courts face significantly greater odds of incarceration than similarly situated white offenders and receive longer sentences than their white counterparts…”
Although “Stop and Frisk” was not a policy before I was born, my father knew the police had every right to question him whenever they wanted. As he told me while I was still quite young, they exercised that right often…because his skin was Black.
I believe the rule of law is a critical pillar of our society, and justice is the base of that pillar. But what do we do when laws are, by their very nature, unjust? How do we respect the rule of law if the law itself is immoral? Fighting such laws, disobeying such laws, is by definition illegal. Fighting slavery was illegal. Consorting with Indians was illegal. Marrying outside your race was illegal.
The entire Civil Rights struggle was enacted illegally because that battle could not be fought within the bounds of the immoral laws that caused the battle in the first place.
To be “illegal” is the only choice some people have.
Had Mildred and Richard Loving lost their case against Virginia, I would have been illegal–or at least my parents would have been. Subject to incarceration, they could have been taken from me.
Where would I have gone? Who would have cared for me and my sister while my parents were imprisoned for the crime of love?
More to the point: Do any of us today really think that would have been a just and moral law?
Crossing the bridge, crossing the river
Luckily for me, the decision in Loving v. Virginia was made three years before I came into the world, allowing me to be born into this country legally. These days, most of us agree it was made approximately 400 years later than it should have been.
Still, it is easy to look at the grainy black and white images of the Civil Rights struggle as a history no-longer relevant to us. Easy, that is, if you are the people that such laws continue to support.
How easy it is to think there are not still such laws. Laws that are encoded in our justice system without any consideration for their morality. Laws that are created and enforced specifically to control, or concentrate, or reject certain groups of people. Laws that separate children from their families, deporting parents for the crime of hope.
America loves her heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr. and César Chávez. We prostrate willingly in front of those warriors whose battles have been fought, won, and turned into children’s books. Less willing are we to admit that today’s heroes were often denounced by the same people who now sit reading books about MLK to their children.
Even less willing are we to recognize those who are fighting battles in our own time.
The white moderates that King blasted in his Birmingham letters are still with us. They are the same people who agree that Black Lives Matter, but say that Walter Scott wouldn’t have been shot in the back if he had just done as he was told. They are the same people who agree with equal rights in principle, but argue that Mexicans should come here legally. They are the same people who don’t know, or don’t care, that our immigration laws are often specifically designed as barriers.
How alike in many ways are the people who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge a generation ago and the people who cross the Rio Grande today. In many ways, the homes and churches of the Underground Railroad seem like homes and churches of sanctuary today. A generation hence, will we read children’s books about those crossing the Underground River?
The rule of morality
I also wonder how different our immigration laws would be if white, English speaking Canadians were coming here. How many news stories and politicians would we see calling them “illegal.”
If our agricultural system and service industry were supported by blonde-haired Canadians, would we be so quick to tell them to go home? Would be so easily reject their pleas for moral treatment and better working conditions?
From reservations to water fountains to internment camps, America is comfortable having laws that restrict or condemn “others.” But as former Attorney General Eric Holder noted while talking about the opioid addiction crisis, American laws also seem to change rather more quickly when white people are affected.
America has a strong history welcoming and helping a certain demographic–at least after it adjusts the concept of “whiteness” to include them. That is why I can’t help but suspect that if white people were breaking immigration laws to come here and work as hard as brown people are working, things would be different.
To be “illegal” is the only choice some people have.
Imagine millions of blonde haired, blue-eyed people coming here to help keep our produce cheap, our restaurants running, our patients cared for, and our houses clean, while also starting business and building our economy. Would we try to stop them? Would we build a wall and make Canada pay for it?
I suspect not. I suspect we would welcome hard working white people. I suspect we would look seriously at the morality of our immigration laws.
And I would be willing to bet that we would call those hard working white people something other than “illegal.”