Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights

Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights

Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights

Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights

Excerpt

In October 2009, Keith Bardwell, the justice of the peace in Louisiana’s Tangipahoa Parish, refused to perform a wedding ceremony for Beth Humphrey, who is white, and Terence McKay, who is African American. “I don’t do interracial marriages,” Bardwell explained, “because I don’t want to put children in a situation they didn’t bring on themselves.” Bardwell, a white man, said that in his observation, “There is a problem with both groups accepting a child from such a marriage” and that therefore “the children will later suffer.” He asserted that his refusal to marry Humphrey and McKay did not constitute discrimination because he denied his services equally to a white woman and a black man. Bardwell claimed youth, not race, as his central concern: “I do it to protect the children. The kids are innocent and I worry about their futures.” Condemnation of Bardwell, as predictable as it was deserved, splattered from the Hammond, Louisiana, Daily Star to the New York Times, from CNN to CBS to Fox News, from the blogosphere to YouTube. Commentators decried the denial of civil rights to Humphrey and McKay (whom another justice of the peace did marry) and defended interracial families and children, often citing President Barack Obama as an example of a successful son born of an interracial marriage. The next month, Bardwell resigned, but he remained unrepentant: “I’m not a racist,” he said. “My main concern is for the children.”

Throughout the uproar, one remarkable fact escaped mention: Bardwell refused to wed Humphrey and McKay in order to protect children who did not exist. Bardwell trumpeted his concern for “the children,” but Humphrey and McKay had no children together in 2009. The “children” whom Bardwell claimed to protect were wholly imagined. These figments competed with Humphrey and McKay: in Bardwell’s view, imagined children deserve protection more than living adults deserve constitutional rights.

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