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Eighteenth-Century Racism in Twenty-First Century America (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi On the very day that President Barack Obama visited New Orleans (Louisiana’s biggest and most historic city), an ele...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

On the very day that President Barack Obama visited New Orleans (Louisiana’s biggest and most historic city), an elected (conservative Republican) Louisiana judge by the name of Keith Bardwell made headlines for refusing to give judicial imprimatur to the marriage of a black and white couple, the kind of marriage the produced Barack Obama. Cruelly ironic, isn’t it?

Now, why would a judge in twenty-first-century America refuse to officiate a civil wedding for a black and white couple? Well, the judge said the reason he has always recused himself from officiating weddings involving black and white couples in his 34-year judicial career is because he knows enough to know that bi-racial marriages are not often successful and that children of biracial unions are usually neither accepted by black families nor by white society.

Bardwell has forcefully protested his innocence against charges that he is a racist. He argued that the fact that he has "piles and piles of black friends” who use his “bathroom” should insulate him from charges of anti-black racism. Hmm. Interesting choice of words there: “piles and piles of black friends.” You would think this doddering doofus was talking about some inanimate objects and not fellow humans who just happen to have a different skin tone from him. Well, this is perhaps the involuntary linguistic manifestation of the man’s deep-seated, subconscious bigotry.

But let’s for now leave his subconscious motives and deal with the voluntary, outward manifestation of his intolerance and prejudice. First, while it is true that inter-racial marriages do have challenges (which marriage doesn’t, by the way?) it is untrue that mixed-race marriages don’t endure. But even if it were true that they don’t, would this same concern affect the judge’s decision to officiate single-race marriages? After all, according to recent data, nearly 50 percent of marriages in America end up in divorce. By Bardwellian logic, the institution of marriage should cease to exist because of this fact.

The man is historically inaccurate, too, when he claimed that children of black and white couples are often rejected by both white and black families. All the notable black American cultural, political and intellectual icons, with the exception of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., have been unquestionably mixed-race—Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. Dubois, Malcolm X, prominent Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates (who likes to describe himself as “73 percent white”).

Black Americans not only tolerate mixed-race people; they, in fact, celebrate them, it would seem. It is white Americans, Bardwell’s people, who don’t have a long history of accepting mixed-race children. Of course, this is not necessarily because black Americans are more racially tolerant than white Americans; it’s because black Americans have, over the years, internalized the white power structure’s definition of blackness— as anybody with even the smallest possible drop of black blood.

That’s why the legendary three-time heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali whose great-grandfather was an Irishman is celebrated as a black American. That’s why former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is probably just about 15 percent black in his gene pool, is celebrated as a black American success story. That’s why Mariah Carey, who would be called “bature” or “oyinbo” in Nigeria, or “muzungu” in eastern Africa, is accepted by black America as a black woman. And that is why it is only in America that a white woman can have black children but a black woman cannot have white children.

But Obama is a living example of a mixed-race child who has found acceptance in both black and white communities. He was loved and well taken care of by his white grandparents and is unconditionally accepted in black America. That’s why Bill Quigley, director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Justice, quipped: “Perhaps [the Louisiana judge is] worried the kids will grow up and be president." Obama's deputy press secretary Bill Burton echoed those sentiments. "I've found that actually the children of biracial couples can do pretty good," he said.

These are not mere political statements. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Social Issues found that, contrary to Bardwell’s claims, mixed-raced children are often able to "place one foot in the majority and one in the minority group, and in this way might be buffered against the negative consequences of feeling tokenized." (There are currently 7 million mixed-race children in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau).

Well, I can forgive Bardwell if he is ignorant of these facts. But being from Louisiana, one of the most mixed-race states in the United States, perhaps in the world, his narrow-mindedness is inexcusable. Throughout the nearly two years I lived in Louisiana, I often had difficulty telling a white person from a black person. People I considered unambiguously white took offense when I identified them as white; they would tell me they were “black.” I later learned that they are more generally called “Creoles”—descendants of the racial alchemy between French, Spanish, and African ancestors who are nonetheless categorized as “black.”

On other occasions, however, people I thought would self-identify as “black” based on my previous encounters with seemingly white “Creoles” would take offense when I called them black. Before I left Louisiana, I stopped guessing or discussing people’s racial identity.

Yes, racial identification is that tenuous, that fluid, and that notoriously unstable in southwest Louisiana!

Related Article:
Eighteenth-Century Racism in Twenty-First Century America (II)

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