Friday, October 16, 2009

The City of New Orleans

I haven't been in New Orleans in a long time. The last time I was there was many years before Hurricane Katrina flooded the city and officially — and, apparently, irretrievably — turned public opinion against George W. Bush.

When I was there, the emphasis was on good food, good drinks and fun (good or otherwise). Live jazz was playing in the French Quarter, French–style beignets with powdered sugar and chicory–laced coffee were being consumed with reckless abandon every morning at Café du Monde, and New Orleans generally lived up to its nickname, "The City that Care Forgot."

But New Orleans — and the rest of Louisiana — couldn't hide away from care forever. After Katrina, the national spotlight seemed to shine ever brighter on the Big Easy.

Judging from the home page of the New Orleans Times–Picayune this morning, things haven't changed that much, though. There is still an emphasis on good food, good music and good times. At this time of year, "good times" means football, and two of the NFL's unbeaten teams, the New Orleans Saints and the New York Giants, will square off Sunday afternoon in the Superdome that once housed — temporarily — Katrina's refugees.

Barack Obama probably could have picked a worse time to make his first presidential visit to New Orleans. Granted, his pledge to rebuild New Orleans stronger than before is one that should have been made — and kept — on the federal level four years ago. But that wasn't Obama's fault. He was barely in the U.S. Senate at that time.

As much as Obama and his supporters may have wanted to believe his election nearly a year ago demonstrated that America was a "post–racial" society, events this year have shown it is not true. Both sides have been culpable to a degree. Some — but not all — of Obama's critics have injected race into the conversation, and some — but not all — of his supporters have been far too willing to point the finger and accuse critics of racism — to the detriment of arguments on both sides.

Neither the right nor the left seems to be truly at fault for an issue that has emerged recently in Tangipahoa Parish, just north of New Orleans. But that hasn't kept either from taking sides.

Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell refused to marry an interracial couple. "I'm not a racist," he claimed. "I just don't believe in mixing the races that way."

He said he was concerned about the children that could be produced from such a union and, for that reason, he has declined to marry about four interracial couples in his career as a justice of the peace.

Now the ACLU of Louisiana is attempting to have Bardwell removed from office.

I'm not an authority on the law, but it does seem to me that, since the Supreme Court's ruling in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case, marriage restrictions based on race have been illegal in the United States. Consequently, a public official who has the authority to marry couples and refuses to do so because the couple in question is interracial is in violation of the law.

But I grew up in the South. And, while laws have changed, it does not surprise me that attitudes have not — at least not to the extent that many people seem to have presumed.

What does surprise me, I guess, is how surprised others are by this. Last night, on Facebook, the pastor of my church pondered this development and asked, rhetorically, "It's 2009, not 1959, right?" Many people — too many to count — chimed in indignantly.

My knee–jerk reaction was that many of those people must not have grown up in the South — and then I remembered that my pastor did grow up here in Texas. But he, like many people, seems to have fallen under the spell of the post–racialists.

Be that as it may, it doesn't change the fact that a public official who refuses to marry an interracial couple is violating the law. As a public official, his personal opinions do not matter — even if he believes his motivation — the well–being of any as–yet unborn children — is noble.

(If his only concern is the children, has anyone asked him if he has performed marriage ceremonies for interracial couples who are past their child–bearing years?)

The left gets particularly agitated about racial implications, but the liberal lion, the late Ted Kennedy, seems to have understood that racism in America did not disappear because Obama was elected president.
"Ted Kennedy believes that race in America is, as he sometimes puts it, 'a–burning,' by which he means that it bubbles just below the surface of the American psyche and it takes little to bring it out."

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson
The Battle for America 2008

I don't know how long it will take for those on the left to recognize that the election of the first black president didn't eliminate race as a factor in American life. It merely turned up the heat and it has bubbled past the surface in Obama's first year in office.

The real test of how much progress America has made in race relations was not — contrary to popular opinion — the election of the first black president. The real test will be whether, three years from now, Americans decide to re–elect him, knowing it will mean four more years of focusing on racial issues — often at the expense of issues that affect Americans of all races.

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