Post post-racial? (Popora?)

Say what?

A Louisiana justice of the peace said he refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple out of concern for any children the couple might have.

That lede, via the Associated Press, seems a product of fifty years ago, although one might rightfully doubt if such a story would make headlines around the world back then. Arguably not, since one of the extraordinary notions about the tale is that it comes from the here and now. Here? Well, obviously, America; in this case it’s Hammond, Louisiana. Now? October 15, 2009, by the time stamp.

And looking to Hammond, we find Don Elizey telling us the unfortunate news:

A justice of the peace said he refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple last week because of concern for the children who might be born of that relationship.

Keith Bardwell, justice of the peace for Tangipahoa Parish’s 8th Ward, also said it is his experience that most interracial marriages do not last long.

“I’m not a racist,” Bardwell said. “I do ceremonies for black couples right here in my house. My main concern is for the children.”

Beth Humphrey, 30, said she and her boyfriend, Terence McKay, 32, both of Hammond, intend to consult the U.S. Justice Department about filing a discrimination complaint.

The story is true. One Keith Bardwell, explaining that he’s not a racist, acknowledged to Hammond Star that his concerns about biracial children compel him to refuse marriage licenses to couples of mixed ethnicity.

But, of course, he’s not racist.

How can he be? This is a post-racial America. Or is it?

Shelby Steele, columnist, author, and Hoover Institute fellow, wrote in the wake of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency,

Does his victory mean that America is now officially beyond racism? Does it finally complete the work of the civil rights movement so that racism is at last dismissible as an explanation of black difficulty? Can the good Revs. Jackson and Sharpton now safely retire to the seashore? Will the Obama victory dispel the twin stigmas that have tormented black and white Americans for so long — that blacks are inherently inferior and whites inherently racist? Doesn’t a black in the Oval Office put the lie to both black inferiority and white racism? Doesn’t it imply a “post-racial” America? And shouldn’t those of us — white and black — who did not vote for Mr. Obama take pride in what his victory says about our culture even as we mourn our political loss?

Answering no to such questions is like saying no to any idealism; it seems callow. How could a decent person not hope for all these possibilities, or not give America credit for electing its first black president? And yet an element of Barack Obama’s success was always his use of the idealism implied in these questions as political muscle. His talent was to project an idealized vision of a post-racial America — and then to have that vision define political decency. Thus, a failure to support Obama politically implied a failure of decency.

Finding cause for partisanship, Steele marked the president’s “racial idealism” as his “only true political originality”, and describes how Obama, the bargainer, offered white America a deal too sweet to pass up: “I will never presume that you are racist if you will not hold my race against me.“:

Obama’s post-racial idealism told whites the one thing they most wanted to hear: America had essentially contained the evil of racism to the point at which it was no longer a serious barrier to black advancement. Thus, whites became enchanted enough with Obama to become his political base. It was Iowa — 95% white — that made him a contender. Blacks came his way only after he won enough white voters to be a plausible candidate.

But it is only so much talk, this post-racial idyll. The reality Steele suggests—

Certainly things other than bargaining account for Obama’s victory. He was a talented campaigner. He was reassuringly articulate on many issues — a quality that Americans now long for in a president. And, in these last weeks, he was clearly pushed over the top by the economic terrors that beset the nation. But it was the peculiar cultural manipulation of racial bargaining that brought him to the political dance. It inflated him as a candidate, and it may well inflate him as a president.

There is nothing to suggest that Obama will lead America into true post-racialism. His campaign style revealed a tweaker of the status quo, not a revolutionary. Culturally and racially, he is likely to leave America pretty much where he found her.

—does not shine so brightly. The real disparity between average blacks and whites in the United States is much more compelling an argument. With illegitimacy at seventy percent among blacks, SAT scores down, prison share up, and the increased frequency of social challenges including drug addiction and domestic violence, we cannot imagine for a moment that a mere black face in the White House will suddenly cure the ills facing the black community. A post-racial America would be a wonderful thing, but is also easier said than done.

On the left, some took an even more wary view of the idea of a post-racial America. Aman Gil wrote, a month before the election:

As Democratic dominance of national-level black politics accelerated, communities’ sense of action eroded into the passive live-with-your-fate mode that presently defines U.S. democracy. “When we go back to the 1950s and 1960s,” Alston says, “that was the period when people were not relying on the Democratic Party, the party that black folks are so tied to [today]. People were in the streets, people voted through their civil disobedience and direct action and organizing.”

The key question is whether much of the agenda in the fight against racial inequality remains unfulfilled. If so, there’s plenty to drive modern-day movements, taking outrages like the Sean Bell verdict to illuminate the living economic inequality untouched by 1960s activism. If not, then what happened to Sean Bell is just an aberration that could have happened to anyone, of any class and any race, in a country that has finally fulfilled its egalitarian ideals. That may be an America to hope for, but it’s not the one we have today.

And in recent weeks the analysis has continued. Last November, Keith Richburg told readers:

The view of America as irretrievably racist has given others with their own racial problems a sense of superiority. It also robs the US of the moral high ground when it issues criticisms of the human rights violations of others. The US State Department issues an annual report on human rights around the world. In response China has begun issuing its own report on human rights in the US. This year, in the section on racial discrimination, it claimed: ‘Racial discrimination is a deep-rooted social illness in the United States.’ The statistics quoted are mostly accurate but selective, chosen to highlight lingering problems while ignoring all the evidence of blacks and minorities entering the American economic mainstream ….

…. Obama’s election, of course, does not mean America has suddenly become a beacon of racial justice and harmony. Indeed, it’s one step – though, symbolically, as powerful a step as can be. As Howard Wolpe, director of the Africa programme at the Wilson Centre in Washington, so aptly put it in an interview: ‘The fact that someone of African ancestry can be the President of the United States is going to substantially increase our moral stature and enable us, I believe, to have much greater sway in our relationships with African states’ ….

…. Will an Obama administration change the status of all blacks in America? Of course not. But his astounding victory is at least changing some perceptions about America. Already it is forcing the rest of the world to rethink.

Not nearly so hopeful, Mr. Richburg, only about a month ago:

Jimmy Carter has always been one to speak bluntly – irritatingly so, to some of his critics. Even at 84, the former president continues to show his willingness to raise the most indelicate topics, often at the most inopportune time. This time, the topic is race and, more specifically, the racism that underlies some of the ugliest, most vociferous criticism of President Obama.

“I think people that are guilty of that kind of personal attack against Obama have been influenced to a major degree by the belief that he should not be president because he happens to be African-American,” Carter said.

Carter’s remarks were like throwing a dead cat into the middle of the dinner table. Obama in interviews broadcast today says race is not a factor, while other democrats disavowed the former president. Republicans cried foul. But perhaps most disturbing in all this is that it looks like Carter is right ….

…. Sharp criticism of presidents is routine and bipartisan– it comes with the territory. And it can sometimes be nasty. Ronald Reagan was derided as lazy and ill-informed. George W Bush was mocked as the “toxic Texan” and an imbecile who bumbled us into Iraq.

But Obama-hatred among a certain segment of the extreme right has crossed a line into something else – it borders on the pathological. When a southern congressman shouted: “You lie!” in the middle of Obama’s joint session of Congress, it was a stunning display of disrespect, not just to the institution, but to the president himself.

One did not have to look too hard at the 12 September anti-Obama rally in Washington – an overwhelmingly white, largely rural crowd – to see the sea of Confederate flags, a symbol of “heritage” to some southern whites and a symbol of racist oppression to blacks. Or the racially laden signs, such as “The zoo has an African lion – the White House has a lyin’ African.” Others held signs that demanded Obama be sent “back to Kenya”.

The increasingly overt racism was on display earlier this year with the so-called “birther” movement, the small but vocal group of conspiratorial nuts who, despite documented evidence to the contrary, are convinced Obama was actually born in Kenya and is ineligible to be president.

If the president were white and his name was O’Malley, would anybody be seriously questioning whether he was secretly born in Ireland?

And go back to the campaign itself, when, despite Obama’s groundbreaking triumphs, particularly in majority white states such as Iowa, racism showed its ugly face on the edges. There were the people bringing toy monkeys with Obama stickers and buttons to McCain-Palin rallies. And the people shouting that Obama was “an Arab”.

For an unvarnished glimpse of the nastiness, take a look at the disturbing documentary Right America: Feeling Wronged, in which film-maker Alexandra Pelosi, the daughter of House speaker Nancy Pelosi, attended 28 rallies for John McCain and Sarah Palin, and just let the crazies speak directly to her camera and microphone.

What is most disturbing is not the evil and inane nonsense these people spout – it’s that they seem perfectly happy to do so for a documentary.

Reporters on the campaign trail often encountered similar sentiments. My Washington Post colleague Robin Shulman travelled to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, a largely white, working-class former coal-mining town. At a diner there, a retired collection agency worker named Marlene told her: “I guess you could call us prejudiced … I don’t believe a black person should be president.”

So that even as some, such as the Wall Street Journal‘s online editor, James Taranto see the race question as “sign[s] of progress”—

Joan Walsh, editor of the left-wing Web site, in a long column called “The Blackening of the President,” argues that opposition to Obama is racist–then slips in this acknowledgment that it isn’t:

    I think most of the president’s troubles with white voters have to do with political doubt his enemies have sown about his programs.

Well, never mind then!

This makes clear that Obama supporters taking refuge in the charge of racism don’t even necessarily believe it themselves. They are doing so out of a combination of desperation, cynicism and habit. Here is a prediction: It’s not going to work. The public will not support ObamaCare, and Congress will not enact it, because of white guilt. All the talk about the purported racial motivations of Obama’s critics is, to borrow the president’s favorite word, a distraction–and those who are trying to sell this atrocious plan cannot afford to be distracted.

That false charges of racism lack the power to influence public opinion is itself an excellent sign for race relations. If this tactic is proved ineffective in such a high-profile, high-stakes debate, people will become far less likely to use it, which will be even better for race relations. The current squabbles over race are stupid, but that is their virtue. They illustrate the pointlessness of dwelling on race.

—all it really takes is one person pointlessly dwelling on race to remind us of real consequences:

Professor Dan Conkle, the Robert H. McKinney Professor of Law and a constitutional law expert, said the incident should never have happened.

“It has been settled for more than 40 years that the Constitution protects interracial marriage,” Conkle said. “What’s more, in addressing a related question, the U.S. Supreme Court has specifically rejected the argument that judges can make child custody decisions on the basis of concerns like those articulated by the justice of the peace. In short, the denial of the marriage license to this couple was plainly and blatantly unconstitutional.”

For more than forty years … that’s Loving v. Virginia (1967), for anyone interested in reading the decision.

Welcome to the United States of America in the fabulous twenty-first century. We’re post-racial, didn’t you hear?

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