Louisiana interracial marriage case revives southern stereotypes

The pace has only picked up after the election of Barack Obama, whose skin color has revealed a usually hidden strain of racism that remains present in the South.

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Ever wonder why jokes about the South and “rednecks” persist?

Look no further than Keith Bardwell, the Louisiana justice of the peace who refused to marry an interracial couple because he was worried about how their kids would cope. “I’m not a racist,” the judge said. He even lets black people use his bathroom, he said.

Sure, the underlying tenets of humor about the South has a bit to do with the insecurity of the North facing a virile Sunbelt economy that, up until recently, had a major influence on national and presidential politics.

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But the political defeat of the Southern-based Republican party has given a little more leeway to poke fun at the South. Of course, that task is only made easier by the fact that some Southerners can’t help but step in it again and again.

The pace has only picked up after the election of President Barack Obama, whose skin color has revealed a usually hidden strain of racism that remains present in the South. (Regionalism, if not racism, seems mutual: Besides White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, an Alabamian, real down-home Southerners are a rarity in the Obama inner circle.)

This week we had the Louisiana judge who somehow had missed the last 30 years -- the US Supreme Court outlawed bans on interracial marriages in 1967 -- and refused to marry an interracial couple.

“There is a problem with both groups accepting a child from such a marriage,” Mr. Bardwell said. “I think those children suffer, and I won’t help put them through it.”

There was Congressman Joe Wilson’s “You Lie” outburst to President Obama. Judging by his fundraising since, Wilson’s been hailed as a hero even though his comment embarrassed many in South Carolina.

Earlier this year, Rusty DePass, a Republican activist, said a gorilla that escaped from the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, S.C., was an ancestor of Michelle Obama.

The state may pay a steep price for a few local chuckles in such cases, warns Brian Hicks, a columnist for the Post and Courier in Charleston. He writes:

“A loudmouthed minority of Neanderthals and sore losers have so poisoned the national discourse with their racist rantings, crude jokes and veiled threats that they have sullied South Carolina's reputation more than any governor, congressman or senator could ever imagine. So, thanks for that.”

Okay, it’s always fun to kick the South and its sympathizers around when they’re down. (See: Reconstruction). But sometimes, even people here in the South agree, the criticism is more than warranted.

The darker side, says Truthout’s Michael Hittleman, is that recent pratfalls in the South hint that “the Republican’s 1968 ‘Southern strategy’ has morphed into the Southern Democratic Party’s 1860 strategy … reminiscent of the antebellum South.”

Of course, to a majority in the South, that’s not funny -- and neither is Mr. Bardwell’s refusal to marry the couple. Many of the 77 percent of Americans who support interracial marriage, according to Gallup, live in the South.

Realizing that Southerners playing into the hands of late-night monologists can be politically damaging to a party trying to be more diverse and inclusive, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and other state officials have criticized Bardwell for his beliefs, and have called for his resignation.

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