Drawing Lines in the Sand for Interracial Dating
And that’s when what may be a fairy tale romance came to a screeching halt: The justice of the peace was Keith Bardwell who refused to marry the pair because McKay is black and Humphrey is white. Bardwell said his refusal to marry the pair was not due to racism, but because of his concerns for children that the union might provide According to Bardwell, neither group accepts such children.
Boy and girl did marry, but no thanks to Justice Bardwell.
What do you think of the justice of the peace’s decision? Even if we agree with Bardwell, how would we decide who should get married? I take it that this justice of the peace would not have married President Barack Obama’s parents: The president’s mother was S. Ann Dunham, a white woman from the American Midwest, while his father was a black Kenyan, Barack Obama Sr. (Click here to have a look at some of the President’s family tree in pictures.)
The president self-identifies as African American and to most of us probably “looks” black, so I take it that if President Obama showed up at this justice of the peace’s with a woman who was the same color his mother was, the justice of the peace would refuse to perform such a marriage.
But what about Malia and Sasha Obama, the daughters of the President and his wife? Only looking at their recent paternal genealogy, we know that one of their grandparents and two of their great-grandparents were white. What if one or even both of the Dunhams was really “passing” for white?
Hmm, to simplify our thinking, let’s put aside the idea that one or both was really of mixed race. So going ahead with the idea that their paternal great-grandparents were white, would a prohibition against interracial marriage mean that neither girl should marry a white person?
Now factor in their maternal ancestry. The New York Times recently published a family tree of First Lady Michelle Obama. Included among the First Lady’s ancestors are Dolphus T. Shields, Michelle Obama’s great-great grandfather whose mother was an enslaved African. Perhaps that’s not surprising given that Michelle Obama is African American. However, Mr. Shields’ father was white!
And how would the “American Indian” strands of the First Lady’s ancestry that the The York Times mentions factor in to the equation? Exactly how much ”white blood” would the younger Obamas need to have to marry someone white?
Going back to the case of boy and girl being asked to wed elsewhere by the justice of the peace in Louisiana, a look at the video of the groom being interviewed about this dust-up suggests to me that the new husband, McKay, is “mixed”. (Given our tangled ancestries, such terms really should have “recently” as a prefix.) Suppose McKay has white ancestors, how recent would they need to be for his marriage to Humphrey not to be considered interracial and therefore problematic?
President Obama once would have been considered mulatto (of one white and one black parent) —a term formerly employed by the U.S. Census Bureau. In fact, in 1890 the Census Bureau tried to be more specific by adding the terms quadroon (one-fourth black blood) and octoroon (one eight black blood) to mulatto and black.
What ”portion” black are Malia and Sasha? Are you dizzy with the amount of math this way of thinking requires? More dizzying to me is that all of these terms and prohibitions (such as those from the justice of the peace) suggest that we know who is “fully” white or black or whichever race. In the context of trading enslaved Africans, the desire and need to “measure” black blood makes sense, at least economically and politically.
But given that we often don’t have to look very far to find “race mixing” in America, how can we make even attempt to regulate such unions? (Have you heard of Strom Thurmond? Thurmond was the longest serving Senator in U.S. history at the time of his death in 2003. He vehemently opposed Civil Rights but after his death, the daughter he had with a black woman revealed he was her father.)
As you might imagine, the Louisiana case has attracted lots of attention, including a call by the state’s Governor for Bardwell’s removal. Interracial marriage has long controversial, enough so to gain a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court: In the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case, the Court struck down state laws against interracial marriage. The ruling reads in part: “Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the state." Just as well…unless you have a bright idea of how we could, with great efficiency and clarity, actually define someone’s race. This case and others like it highlight that race is not as clear-cut of a concept as many of us might think. While we often view race as a biological construct, it is a social construct that we constantly struggle to define and make meaning of, often with serious consequences.