Peggy Pascoe is Professor of History and Ethnic Studies at the University of Oregon. Her book, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America, has won two awards from the Organization of American Historians: the Lawrence Levine Prize for the best book on American cultural history and the Ellis Hawley Prize for the best book on political economy or American institutions. In the post below she looks at the actions of Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell. Read her previous OUPblog post here.
Louisiana Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell refuses to marry interracial couples. He’s been doing so for years, but it wasn’t until October 2009, when he refused to marry Beth Humphrey and Terence McKay, that his actions attracted attention.
Appalled by Bardwell’s practice of checking with every couple who comes before him to see if they are interracial, then insisting that interracial couples go to other justices of the peace for their wedding ceremonies , Humphrey and McKay, the ACLU, the NAACP, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and Louisiana Senator Mary L. Landrieu have all called for Bardwell’s resignation.
Bardwell insists he hasn’t done anything wrong. “It is my right,” he said, “not to marry an interracial couple.” He doesn’t even understand why Humphrey and McKay were offended by his refusal. “I’m not a racist,” he insists. “I try to treat everyone equally.”
“In some parts of this country,” a friend of mine commented wryly, “it’s still the 1930s.” For most of American history, Bardwell’s refusal to marry an interracial couple would have been standard public policy. Laws against interracial marriage were, in fact, America’s longest-lasting and most fundamental form of race discrimination.
After the first such law was passed by the colony of Maryland in 1664, miscegenation laws thrived for the next three centuries. By the 1930s, 30 states banned interracial marriage, many of them prohibiting whites from marrying Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, and American Indians as well as blacks.
Courts justified these laws by insisting that interracial marriage was “unnatural,” a claim that became so pervasive that by 1958, 94 percent of Americans told pollsters they opposed interracial marriage. Judges claimed that because the laws punished both the black and white partners to an interracial marriage, they affected blacks and whites “equally.” Like Keith Bardwell, they persuaded themselves that equality somehow demanded that public officials refuse to marry interracial couples.
The U.S. Supreme Court exposed the absurdity of this line of thinking in the 1967 case of Loving v. Virginia, which declared Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage unconstitutional. “There can be no doubt,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause.” Ever since the Loving decision, refusing to marry an interracial couple has been—and despite Bardwell’s protestations, still is—a clear denial of constitutional rights.
In the forty years since Loving, there has been a historic turnabout in public opinion; today most whites and blacks tell pollsters they approve of interracial marriage. There has also been a steady increase in interracial marriages, which now number in the millions. According to some estimates, in 2005 as many as 7% of American married couples were interracial, though the number of marriages between whites and blacks stood at a much more modest 422,000.
Yet it would be a mistake to assume that attitudes like Bardwell’s can be safely consigned to the past. A significant segment of several state populations still refuses to recognize that interracial marriage is a legal right. In 1999 and 2000, when South Carolina and Alabama finally got around to removing bans on interracial marriage from their state constitutions, the public vote was roughly 60 percent for removing the bans and 40 percent for leaving them in the state constitutions.
In other words, Keith Bardwell is entirely wrong, but he’s not entirely alone. Perhaps this helps explain why he’s gotten away with his outrageous behavior for so long. In the end, though, it only makes it all the more important that he be removed from public office. The disappointed bride, Beth Humphrey, said it best. “He doesn’t believe he’s being racist,” she said, “but it is racist.”
Editor’s Note: While some of the comments below do not align with my personal beliefs I believe it is important to post them, as long as they do not contain obscenities.