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Commentary: Living in a Mixed-Race America

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June Cross is a writer and documentary filmmaker and an associate professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is the author of "Secret Daughter: a Mixed-Race Daughter and the Mother Who Gave Her Away." Her documentary on one Black family's struggle to rebuild in post-Katrina New Orleans aired on PBS in January 2009.

As if being married had anything to do with Blacks and Whites producing mixed-race children.

That was my first thought upon reading that an elected official in Louisiana had refused to marry a Black man and a White woman out of concern for what might happen to the children.

Ever since African-Americans landed on these shores in chains, Black women carried the offspring of their White masters. And indentured women servants, often of Irish descent, bore the children of Black men back in the seventeenth century before Virginia became the first state in the union to make interracial marriage illegal in 1691.

Over two hundred and seventy-five years later, Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter challenged Virginia's anti-miscegenation laws all the way to the Supreme Court and prevailed on June 12, 1967. Regardless, many Southern states kept the laws on the books, although they didn't enforce them (Alabama just repealed its laws against interracial marriage in 2000.)

But evidently word of the legal cases never made their way to Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, where Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell has been refusing to marry mixed couples for the last 2 ½ years. He claims it's not racism that motivates him--after all, he lets his Black friends use his bathroom. No, it's for the sake of the kids.

In his unlawful refusal to marry interracial couples Bardwell says "... that most of Black society does not readily accept offspring of such relationships, and neither does white society..."

Well, I'm the daughter of a Black father and a White mother myself, and so I know a thing or two about the tangled history of skin and kinship in this country. And being a reporter, I've interviewed a bigot or two in my day. Back in my early twenties, on assignment in southern Georgia, one southern Georgia redneck regarded me with pity when I told him my pedigree. "It's not your fault," he said sincerely, "but you're an abomination of nature."

Knowing that that whole generation hasn't died off, I was a bit skeptical when some pundits announced that the country had entered a "post-racial" millennium with the election of a biracial President. Some folks have too much vested in being White to ever accept a Black man as leader of the United States of America. It flies in the face of all those laws, passed during slavery and fought over during the Civil War, that essentially define being an American citizen as not being a Black person.

In fact, the president was elected by a margin of 52 percent--which means nearly half the electorate didn't vote for an Obama-led nation. During the campaign, they began a web site called "Obamanation.net."

The right now makes the mixed race President synonomous with everything they consider counter to their values: gay rights, abortion - even universal health care. They even question whether he was born in the United States, the ultimate unwillingness to accept the citizenship of a mixed-race man.

Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates has built a television career out of proving that none of us, Black or White, are what we appear to be, nonetheless, this idea of racial "purity" persists. Let me add one more piece of evidence to the pile: between 1870 and 1910 the US Census Bureau would count those who appeared "mixed" to the census-taker. They counted over half a million mixed race-looking persons in the United States.

Then the Great Migration began, and millions of Americans moved from the South to the North and the West, looking for better opportunities. By the time the Census got around to counting again, in 1920, the number of those appearing to be "mulatto" or "mixed race" had dropped by a quarter million persons.

Where did a quarter million mixed race people go? Geneologists think they decided to pass as White and mixed themselves right into the great American melting pot. Of course, in Louisiana, where race-mixing has been going on since before the birth of the nation, all you had to do was cross the county lines to disappear.

I daresay some of those White folks Justice of the Peace Bardwell has married in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana weren't as White as he may have thought they were.


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of June Cross.

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