The Offensive Bardwell Defense

Is it 2009 or 1954?

You might have read about Keith Bardwell, a man out of his time, who, throughout his 35 year career as a Justice of the Peace in Louisiana, has steadfastly denied marriage licenses to interracial couples. For their own good, of course. And for the good of any children they might bear. Some might consider Bardwell an old coot who means well, when he defends his cruel and discriminatory behavior as being based on his concern that interracial marriages generally don’t last, and that it’s cruel to subject children to a world where they will be pariahs to blacks and whites alike. But I can’t listen to his defense of bigotry with anything but an understanding that he has a choice. He can “protect” children from the hate he perpetuates, or he can stop being hateful.

Clearly, Bardwell doesn’t get out much, if he thinks that life for interracial couples and children is all that bad. Apparently, he can’t — or won’t — imagine a culture like the SF East Bay, where my wife, son and I live happily amongst many other interracial families and suffer no more or less discrimination than most of our single or multi-cultured peers. But I’m not buying his racism dressed up as concern for the children defense. I suspect that all of Bardwell’s good buddies, including a State Attorney General who passively condoned his illegal actions, generally agree that hey, we can deal with multiple races, as long as they don’t cross-pollinate.

It’s striking to me that Bardwell’s defense is based on the usual trifecta of bigoted justifications: He “doesn’t believe in mixing the races in that way”; he doesn’t believe that interracial marriages will last, questioning their validity (in relation to single race unions); and he seeks to protect the children. This sounds a lot like the recent Proposition 8 campaign in California, which amended the state constitution to ban gay marriage, not because there’s anything wrong with gays — “We love them!” the Prop 8 backers exclaimed — but because they don’t approve of that sort of union, and it’s not valid, and, if we condone it, we’ll harm the children.

Unlike Bardwell, who had his rationalizations for racism at the ready, the Prop 8 types look like they’re grasping at straws. Asked by a judge to explain exactly what the threat that homosexual marriages hold for heterosexual unions is, an attorney for the Prop 8 coalition admitted that he didn’t know. But, he protested, there might be a threat! We can’t allow two people who love each other to be treated as equal with two other people who love each other because, um, well, there might be some unforeseen consequence for the other people!

My son’s first exposure to racism came a few years before we were planning to teach him about it, when we attempted to stay at a cliff-side inn on the Oregon coast, only to find that another family had gotten down to the beach before us and had taken the opportunity — after seeing my dread-locked wife — to etch, in large letters, “N I G G E R” in the sand, in plain view from anywhere up the bluff. We had to explain to our four year old why we had to leave the nice hotel and get back in the car. Because of the bad people; the ignorant ones, who will insult and threaten us for irrational reasons.

He’ll run into this again. In fact, we’re certain that he already has run into subtler forms of racism. But he’ll suffer less of it than I did, as a Unitarian boy growing up somewhat ostracized in a school where 75% of my classmates were Jewish (unaware, until I was older, of my Jewish roots). I clearly remember the single lunch table where the black kids sat, bused into our 99% white school from Boston. I comforted my interracial friends who were beaten by other kids for being too light-skinned; or stopped by the police for being too dark-skinned in their own neighborhood. There’s still plenty of this type of racism around, but there’s less of it than there was, and it’s easier for us to shelter our son, appropriately, from it.

And it beats what our parents went through. My Jewish heritage was a secret because, after being chased out of the Netherlands by the Nazi’s, my mother and her parents shed their religion like a blood-soaked frock. My wife’s grandmother and aunt signed the earliest petition in what became Brown vs. the Board of Education, and lived through the firestorm that signing that petition incensed in the white community. We are both still very much products of a history of discrimination, and it tempers who we are and what we want for our child.

But we have hope for the future, because, while I don’t find age and naivete to be justifications for discrimination, I do see the generational trend that seems to be eradicating it. It is a better world for my interracial son to grow up in than it was for his racial parents. But it will be an even better one if we work, actively, to resurrect a media that used to pride itself on not taking sides. And we can’t tolerate the Bardwell’s and the Prop 8 bigots who are so sure of their superiority that they can easily justify denying others the same rights and privileges that they have. This is the world that my son is growing up in, let’s make it one that he’s welcome in.

2 Responses to “The Offensive Bardwell Defense

  • ThomasT
    15 years ago

    Obviously, this guy is a racist jerk who has no business holding public office (Justices of the Peace in Louisiana are elected to six year terms by the citizens of the parish they serve). However, what’s not yet clear to me after reading the coverage and poking around a few other websites, is whether Justices of the Peace are obligated by statute to perform legal marriages requested by their constituents, or merely empowered to do so. Also, I’ve seen some outlets report that Bardwell refused to issue a marriage license (which would be obviously illegal), and others report that he wouldn’t sign it. What I’d love to know is if he was failing to fulfill a duty which is legally required of him, or was refusing to perform a duty which he is empowered by his office to perform.

    I am a strong proponent of marriage equality, and member of a religious congregation which currently suffers discrimination under opposite-sex-only marriage laws, since only some of the marriages we celebrate are acknowledged by the state. As such, I would hope that those empowered but not obligated to perform marriages which are permitted under the law would be sheltered from civil litigation when they choose not to marry a specific couple. The completely bogus spectre of legal consequences for bigots like Rick Warren during the Prop 8 and other marriage equality battles must remain that: a bogus spectre. Obviously, the rules are and should be different for religious officiants and those charged with executing and enforcing the law. Which is why I’m curious to know if LA Justices of the Peace are empowered to perform marriages, and may therefore make private arrangements regarding fees and so forth, or whether they are the state-provided officiants, intended to serve any couple who are legally allowed to marry.

    Certainly no rabbi or priest should be legally challenged for refusing to perform an inter-faith marriage (though my Jewish wife and I are certainly glad that not all rabbis hold that position). I therefore take the libertarian position that other *private* officiants who take similar stands of conscience against solemnizing a given message, however disgusting and wrongheaded their conscience may be, should not be legally liable for that refusal.

    • I don’t know what the rules are for Louisiana JPs, but suspect that there’s a middle ground where it’s legal for the Justice to deny a request (why require a license if there isn’t some discretionary distribution involved?), but not to have a standing rule based purely on race. Bardwell says that he also wouldn’t issue licenses to obvious drunks or drug abusers, and, assuming he was applying good judgment, that’s probably within his mandate.

      I really ducked the religious angle in my post, which is cheating, as religious bigotry is usually the foundation for marriage discrimination. To my mind, which I think is pretty rational, the whole passing of Proposition 8 was a clear violation of the spirit of the “separation of church and state” laws. One could argue that, just because a lot of churchgoers voted for the measure, that doesn’t mean that they weren’t voting as citizens. But it’s documented that the largest percentage of funds for the initiative came from the Church of Latter Day Saints, and possibly the second largest bucket from the Catholic Church. This is a clear case of priests and preachers influencing a political situation, and either the measure should be thrown out, or they should lose their nonprofit status.

      So, I appreciate the angle that Judge Walker seems to be taken, which is to take the ample evidence that the Prop 8 founders do hold discriminatory attitudes toward gays and void the measure based on civil rights laws. This is a civil rights issue, all of the way. But I’m dumbfounded that the more obvious ruling that civil laws can’t be made to support religious biases isn’t the obvious problem with the ruling.

      I was married the same way that most (straight) couples are: with a state-certified license and a church-approved wedding. 50 years ago that might not have been so easily accomplished, and a lot of the opposition came straight from the pulpit. Even Dear Abby has made this simple plea that the government stop factoring religious bias into civil marriage, and make the civil ceremony binding and independent of the religious ceremony. That way, the bigots can be free to believe that marriage is a bond between man and woman, white person and white person, or whatever, but their theological conclusion isn;’t recognized by the state as being more valid than yours and mine, which allows for any two people who are of age, reasonable mind, and in love to marry.