Theory Teacher's Blog

Interracial Marriage, Chasing the Empty Balloon

I’m guessing that everyone who reads this blog is aware of two news stories from yesterday: the one that dominated the television networks for hours and hours about the boy who turned out not to be in the balloon floating 7000 above the earth, and the other that dominated the alternative internet sites about the judge in Louisiana whose policy it is to deny interracial couples a marriage license. My guess is that most would see these two stories as opposites — one the kind of hyped bizarre-ness common on Fox News, the other the serious, social issue addressed by the progressive Hungtington Post. But are they really so different? 

This morning, NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! show’s criticism of the balloon-boy episode was predictable — the oft-repeated criticism that networks devote hours and hours of air time and labor to this absurd story and ignore all the important news such as in-depth analysis of the American economy or the on-going crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I’ve written about this standard lament about journalism before [here]. Of course, nobody would be saying this if it turned out that the boy actually were in the balloon and died. It’s only the emptiness of the balloon that symbolizes the emptiness (and “hot air”) of the stories that the media tends to chase and the consuming public tends to eagerly follow. And who can blame the networks since their ratings went up as all of America together chased this empty balloon? Hipper-than-thou indie-rockers everywhere must be penning lyrics about it as I write this.

In contrast, the websites about the racist judge all express almost unanimous outrage that something like this could still be happening in 21st century America. One can imagine someone saying that this is the kind of important news that the TV networks should be covering instead of the balloon boy. And one can also imagine Northerners muttering under their breath the standard stereotypes about the racist South — a stereotype that my fellow blogger Dr. J has worked hard [here] to complicate and dispell. After all, in support of Dr. J, it’s clear from the Associated Press report that Louisianans themselves are just as outraged at this judge as other people in the country. And where was the national outrage when swastikas appeared in the dormitories of St. Cloud State U. in Minnesota or the lives of black student leaders were verbally threatened at Penn State?

The issue of race and racism in American continues to be important, and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. Being in an interracial relationship myself, this is something I care about. But the media does not really cover race — even when it pretends to cover it. Instead, it chases empty balloons, easy appeals to the mass public by presenting the judge whose extreme racism we can all define ourselves against. What I want to point out here is that the Associated Press never mentions what legal precedent the judge might be applying to this case. In the judge’s own mind, his policy is not only reasonable but also supported by the local black community. And we probably ought to assume that the judge — being a judge — had some legal principle in mind. Based on the judge’s answers to the journalist’s inquiry, my guess is that he is applying the “best interest of the child” rule that guides all no-fault divorce cases, and I will speak more about that in a moment.

In my opinion, the journalist should have mentioned what legal standard was being applied here, but doing so would have forced us to think about the legal system at large rather than just the racism of the individual judge. It always surprises me when journalists fail to do their homework, though I suppose it shouldn’t. I remember being interviewed once, and I discovered that the journalist only wanted a one-sentence statement of how I felt about the issue. I told the journalist that if he just looked at this publicly available website he could find all the documents and evidence he needed to expose the truth about the situation he was covering. He said he wasn’t interested in that, just in my feeling. He was obviously a young journalist, just a year out of college, so I pressed him why, and he said that’s what he learned in journalism school — to find the human angle…. the empty balloon.

Back to the “best interest of the child” rule. Although the judge is clearly applying that rule innappropriately, it is a rule that (when appropriately applied) might seem perfectly reasonable to everyone. In the case of divorce, the judge has to decide which parent the child should be with, and so the judge generally decides what’s in the best interest of the child. Seems reasonable, doesn’t it? But, as Jane Juffer discusses in great detail in chapter five of her book Single Mother: The Emergence of a Domestic Intellectual (2006), feminist lawyers have for years challenged the rationality of this rule by demonstrating how “best-interest” is a culturally constructed notion that tends to be merged with notions of what’s normal. In other words, judges everywhere have tended to use this rule to discriminate against ambitious women, women in interracial relationships, homosexuals, and even women who choose to live in cooperative arrangements rather than in the “normal” nuclear arrangement with the white picket fence and dog in the back yard. The belief that guides this rule is that “normal” is better for the child, and lawyers can easily find simplistic sociological and psychological studies to back them up. In such studies, other sociologists and legal scholars have discerned an inherent bias — that the very standard of “normalcy” is the stumbling block for parents and couples, not anything unnatural about their alternative choices. More methodologically rigorous sociological and psychological studies present a more complex picture and suggest alternatives to a narrowly defined normalcy. We should be thinking critically about how to change our society and live better lives, not just thinking pragmatically about how to follow the given cultural codes, which remain racist as well as nuclear and individualistic. And while the judge appeals to his “black friends” who he claims agree with his policy, we should have the courage to (1) challenge his black friends for buying into a racist culture and (2) recognize the diversity of voices and successful lifestyles within any local community. Such standards of normalcy usually reign (hegemonically) wherever we are, especially within the liberal, academic community that imagines itself to be more open but in reality is not.

My point here is that the story about the racist judge and the balloon boy are both empty balloons that trigger emotions and may even address an important issue but ultimately allow us to avoid dealing honestly with our own anxieties and with the systemic injustices within our society.

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October 17, 2009 - Posted by | media, race

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