A relic of the racist past



To really understand how far we as Americans have traveled on the long road to racial progress, consider the case of Keith Bardwell.

A mere 50 years ago, public servants like Bardwell were everywhere, infesting government at all levels - particularly, but by no means exclusively, in the South. When they behaved as ignorant racists, it was deemed to be no big deal because their racism was deemed culturally and institutionally appropriate. If a white woman and a black man in that era had asked a justice of the peace to marry them, and the justice of the peace had naturally refused, who would even have considered that refusal to be newsworthy, given the temper of the times and the laws on the books?

Yet today such a refusal is newsworthy.

Bardwell, a justice of the peace in a Louisiana parish, stands exposed for his aberrant behavior because the society in which he lives has markedly changed during the past 50 years; and because the laws he was supposedly sworn to obey have changed as well. Bardwell, who earlier this month refused to marry Beth Humphrey (a white woman) and Terence McKay (a black man), is now seen by society not as a practitioner of business as usual, but as an anomoly, a discredited relic of a racist past.

This is what I mean by progress.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 42 years ago that state laws banning mixed-race marriages were unconstitutional; in the court's words, such laws were "directly subversive of the principle of equality...Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not to marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the state." This ruling invalidated the mixed-marriage bans that were on the books in 16 southern states, plus Oklahoma. South Carolina and Alabama kept the mixed-marriage bans that were encoded in their state constitutions, until the voters in those states excised the prohibitive language in referendums conducted in 1998 and 2000.

So when Bardwell - a Louisiana Republican who has served as a JP for 34 years - refused this month to marry Humphrey and McKay because, in his words, "I don't do interracial marriages," he basically declared that he had the right to defy settled legal precedent in the name of racial discrimination. Whereas it's actually the obligation of a JP to follow the law - all the laws - in service of the public. All of the public.

Naturally, Bardwell doesn't see the situation this way. "I try to treat everyone equally," he's quoted as saying. He says he has "piles and piles of black friends," and even though he doesn't believe in "mixing the races," he frequently performs marriage ceremonies for black couples; in fact, as evidence of his broad-mindedness, he says that "they use my bathroom."

He says that he defies the law out of the goodness of his heart, out of concern for the children. He says that mixed-race marriages tend not to work out, and that society refuses to accept mixed-race kids, who inevitably "suffer" because of who they are. (Barack Obama suffered all the way to the White House, after being accepted by the highest vote tally in American history). Anyway, Bardwell basically said all this to Beth Humphrey in a phone call on Oct. 6, when he stated his refusal to marry them.

His racism aside, and his defiance of the law aside, here's where the guy's fig-leaf rationalizations really fail:

The Census Bureau reports that mixed-race couples (of all races, not just black and white) comprise only 7.4 percent of all marriages in the United States. Each year, nationwide, there are roughly one million divorces; indeed, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, roughly 40 percent of first marriages end in separation or divorce. Ergo, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to rightfully conclude that the vast majority of American children victimized each year by marriage breakups are the offspring of same-race couples.

If Bardwell is so concerned about marriages that don't work out, and about the children of such marriages, perhaps he should abstain altogether. He may get that opportunity. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu has demanded his ouster ("He clearly has no intention of administering the law or upholding justice for interracial couples"), and Governor Bobby Jindal has said the same ("Disciplinary action should be taken immediately - including the revoking of his license").

Landrieu is a Democrat, Jindal is a Republican...Check it out, folks, we actually have elected leaders behaving in a bipartisan fashion. That too has to count as progress.