I'm trying to write about Nicholas Blackburn, but I keep thinking of Sandra Laing.

Laing, as you may recall, is the South African girl whose life fell apart in the mid-'60s after she was officially reclassified from white to "Colored"-- or mixed race. Despite the valiant efforts of her white parents, she was kicked out of school and even threatened with expulsion from her home, which, being in a white neighborhood, was off-limits to her. She was later reclassified as white, but she was never able to put her life back together.

Isn't South Africa terrible?

Well, America isn't always a lot better, as Nicholas Blackburn's mother will tell you. She hasn't seen her 3-year-old son since last June, when a Georgia court awarded custody of the boy to his paternal grandmother. According to Judge W.C. Hawkins, Blackburn is an unfit mother. According to Blackburn, the judge was motivated by the fact that Nicholas has a nine-month old sister, born out of wedlock and fathered by a black man.

When Blackburn was divorced from Nicholas' father, she was a fit-enough mother for the same Judge Hawkins to award her custody of the boy. She still apparently is fit enough to retain custody of her black daughter. She's only unfit as regards her white son.

The judge, naturally, says his motivations were pure. He didn't act on the black child because that child's custody wasn't an issue before his court. He also insists that race had nothing to do with his finding of unfitness.

Judge Hawkins' official stand is that he was persuaded by the evidence that the 27-year-old Kathy Blackburn, who moved to Millen in 1978 and was divorced a year later, is an unfit mother. The evidence:

A pediatrician said the boy had gained only two pounds in four months, while a child his age should have gained six pounds. The judge decided the boy was undernourished. But Kathy Blackburn's attorney, Lois Goodman, countered with another doctor who said Nicholas' weight gain was entirely normal. According to Goodman, the unfavorable testimony came from a Cuba- trained physician, Dr. Virgil Abreu, who has twice failed his state medical exams and even now has only a provisional license. The rebuttal was from Dr. Gerson Aronovitz, who taught pediatrics for 20 years at Emory Medical College.>

Dr. Abreu said the boy had had an inordinate number of colds, evidence of improper care. Dr. Aronovitz said the colds were less than normal, both in number and in severity, noting the absence of accompanying ear infections.

Nicholas' grandmother, who was awarded custody, told the court she had twice seen the boy playing with other children, unsupervised by adults, in the parking lot of the public housing project where the Blackburns lived. She was not able to furnish dates, but, according to Goodman, admitted that the periods of unsupervised play were quite brief.

Kathy Blackburn had a baby out of wedlock, which the judge apparently takes as evidence of immorality.

The judge apparently was unfavorably impressed by the boy's living conditions. "They live in a bad neighborhood," he told a reporter. "If the real mother had the child, they would have been in a slum community. And that child is damn well going to get better attention than with the mother off working all day."

To which Goodman, a lawyer with Georgia Legal Services, replies: "Poverty is no proof of unfitness."

Goodman says when her case goes to the Georgia Supreme Court she will contend that Judge Hawkins is illegally mandating different standards of fitness for in-wedlock and out-of-wedlock children. "My client is, according to Judge Hawkins, an unfit mother for her in- wedlock son while at the same time custodian by state law of her out-of-wedlock daughter."

Goodman acknowledges that the judge would have been within the law if he had found Blackburn morally unfit. But the only evidence of immorality was the fact of the out-of-wedlock birth.

"One out of every six children born -- in the United States generally and in Georgia specifically--is born out of wedlock. Does that make all their mothers unfit? Should the court take all these children away from their mothers?" Goodman asks.

The judge, who insists his decision was not racially motivated, may have given the game away in an interview with an Atlanta Journal reporter:

"You got a community here that isn't, shall we say, ready for that sort of integration, whether you like it or not."

Isn't South Africa terrible!