Bob Herbert’s New York Times column cites to an 1872 Tennessee case that upheld a law prohibiting interracial marriage. See State v. Bell, 66 Tenn. 9. The Tennessee Court wrote that:
Extending the rule to the width asked for by the defendant, and we might have in Tennessee the father living with his daughter, the son with the mother, the brother with the sister, in lawful wedlock, because they had formed such relations in a State or country where they were not prohibited. The Turk or Mohammedan, with his numerous wives, may establish his harem at the doors of the capitol, and we are without remedy.
The Court, of course, was wrong. Interracial marriage statutes were held unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia in 1967, and none of the parade-of-horribles scenarios has come to pass in the forty years since. The difference between the threatened result in that case and the actual result when Loving was decided is instructive.
The court believed that removal of one boundary line in a social institution would necessarily result in the removal of all boundary lines — any change would “open the floodgates” for awful scenarios. In fact, however, the parade of horribles never came to pass. Society was perfectly capable of drawing and maintaining new boundary lines, even after removal of interracial marriage prohibitions. That capability means that the results of changes to social institutions may be much less catastrophic than detractors predict.