La. interracial marriage: Is life tougher for biracial kids?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Louisiana justice of the peace Keith Bardwell's refused to marry a white woman and a black man reportedly because he believed that children of an interracial marriage would suffer socially.

That view was once common in the United States, and might have had some basis decades ago when such marriages were taboo and multiracial families were sometimes ostracized. But today, not only are mixed-race children widely accepted but some research suggests they might even have some social advantages.

Researchers are finding that multiracial kids can sometimes be better socially adjusted than single-race offspring. And with the high-profile success of multiracial progeny such as Tiger Woods, Halle Berry, and President Obama (who at his first press conference as president described himself as a "mutt"), stereotypes about the split world of the "tragic mulatto" have long fallen by the wayside.

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The American Civil Liberties Union is now threatening a lawsuit if Mr. Bardwell, veteran justice of the peace at Tangipahoa Parish, doesn't step down. The group calls Bardwell's refusal to issue a marriage licence to Beth Humphrey (who is white) and Terence McKay (who is black) both "tragic and illegal."

"I'm not a racist," Bardwell told a local newspaper. "I do ceremonies for black couples right here in my house. My main concern is for the children."

The 'tragic mulatto'

Refusing to issue marriage licenses for reasons of race has been illegal in the US since the Supreme Court in 1967 struck down anti-miscegenation laws in 16 states, mostly in the South.

Research on mixed-race children once focused on the social and psychological problems that can arise from not feeling like a full member of any racial group. That notion permeated early 20th century American literature through the figure of the "tragic mulatto," who did not fit in with either the black or white world.

As recently as 1968, the psychologist J.D. Teicher wrote, "Although the burden of the Negro child is recognized as a heavy one, that of the Negro-White child is seen to be even heavier."

The idea that mixed-race children were biologically inferior to white or black kids was also widespread in the South, and often formed the basis of anti-miscegenation laws during Jim Crow years. (Researchers have found that not only is that not true, but that mixed-race offspring tend to be overall more physically attractive than their peers.)

Changing views

But loosening of marriage laws and more-accepting social mores have transformed perceptions of multiracial families. For one thing, there are now 7 million mixed-race kids in the US, up from 500,000 in the 1970s.

A 2008 study of 182 mixed-race high school kids in California found that these kids didn't focus on exclusionary features like skin color or hair texture when thinking about themselves, but instead, they appeared to feel that their heritage made them "unique."

The kids are 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," the study authors wrote in the Journal of Social Issues. The students surveyed included those with mixed Asian, Hispanic heritage.

Other studies suggest that while mixed-race kids may no longer feel the burden of discrimination, they still face unique challenges. A 2008 study led by Harvard researchers found that mixed-race adolescents tend to engage in risky behavior outside of school at higher rates than average and also fare "somewhat worse on measures of psychological wellbeing."

The reality for many mixed-race children probably lies somewhere between liberating and restrictive. On a Yale University blog this year, biracial student Phoebe Hinton wrote: "I am lucky enough to have an excuse flowing in my veins to do whatever … I want: there are some things white people do and … I'll do them. There are some things black people do, and … I'll do them."

"Pretty much the only thing people won't accept me doing," she adds, "is continuing to identify as neither black nor white, but an amalgam of the two."

Whether biracial children in rural Louisiana experience the same confidence in their identity – in a region where race arguably still hangs heavier than other parts of the country – is an open question.

Even if they don't, Bardwell, the justice of the peace, will be hard-pressed to convince anybody – including potentially the US Justice Department – that that's any of his business.

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