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Keith Bardwell: Wrong But Not Alone

9780195094633Peggy 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.

Recent Comments

  1. uberVU - social comments

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by oupblog: Keith Bardwell is wrong but not alone: http://bit.ly/2Avbfx

  2. D Sims

    Well, it was only a matter of time before Mr. Bardwell was overthrown. I happen to agree with Bardwell, and I do not consider myself a racist. However blacks and white who marry should not have children as it leaves the child wondering what heritage they come from and where they will fit in. I think its very sad to see mixed couples who think so little of their own morals, culture, and heritage.

  3. Nicole

    Nice summary of this story and the reality of the country, today. It is absurd that, less than a decade ago, 40% of people voted against taking those clauses out of the state constitutions! I was born and raised a Texan, and until recently I thought other southern states were a bit more on par with Texas than they actually are.

  4. Russell Cross

    To say “I am not a racist” and then refuse to marry interracial couples strikes me as the ultimate self deception! If he sincerely believes he is NOT racist then he truely is deluded. So why does he refuse if racism isn’t the reason?

  5. In response to the original news story, a new organization/website was started-
    MISSION STATEMENT- To facilitate the cultural recognition of interracial/multicultural families and disassociate this culture from longstanding stigma by exposing and discrediting stereotypes.

    I am so please that this has resolved the way it should!

  6. Mike

    It makes me very sad that it is impossible to be sane and have moral values in the modern world.At least the guy said what he was thinking,I would have done the same thing.And he is not racist,these types of marriages are just morally wrong.

  7. LaurenA

    I agree with Russell. Mike, to declare that interracial marriages are morally wrong, but preface it by claiming you are not a racist is an absolute contradiction. It’s a free country (as the overused phrase goes)–so state your opinion freely, but don’t pretend that you are somehow excluded from the name “racist” or “bigot.” Because you’re not.

    And in response to D, being born an interracial child doesn’t automatically mean you will have identity issues. If a child feels like he doesn’t “fit in,” it is only the fault of people around him who encourage homogeneous racial populations, despite the fact that it is not the reality of today’s America. Interracial couples and families are just as proud of their cultures and heritages as anyone else. Shame on you for trying to suggest otherwise.

  8. Sarah Russo

    It makes me both sad and angry that Justice Bardwell and Mr. Sims feel they have the right to judge other *humans.* It begs the question: what is your cultural background?

    I, personally, am as “American” as they come: my father is second generation Italian, my mother is primarily Dutch, her ancestors were among the first Dutch settlers in the colonies and proceeded to “intermarry” with (God forbid!) the Irish, English, Austrians, French, American Indians, over the centuries that followed.

    My husband is Jewish of Russian, Scottish, and German decent. Our daughter is the ultimate mutt: healthy, smart, beautiful with the best traits of many cultures handed down to her. I wouldn’t trade my ancestry for a genetically inbred Teutonic one. In fact, I’d be pleased to bolster our lineage with African, Asian, Middle Eastern, etc.

    Each heritage has it’s strengths and, as is blatantly shown above, each man (or woman) has his weakness.

  9. mancuso

    Oh Brother had a pretty interesting segment a week or so ago that was all about this story.


  10. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rebecca, Cassie, Kim Liggins, francis leong, Lauren and others. Lauren said: Not a racist? Great! Promote tolerance here: http://bit.ly/2Avbfx […]

  11. Vivian

    Keith Bardwell,

    I applaud you for standing up for your beliefs. I completely agree with your decision. I think it is completely ridiculous that these clowns are suing you AND YOUR WIFE. CRAZY!!! Good luck and God Bless.

    To the Couple,
    You got married. The man followed his conscience. Leave him be. Move on with your life. And always follow your own beliefs, just as this judge did. Just because you don’t like him opinion or choice, does not mean you have to ruin his career and life. After all, he did not try to stop your marriage; he just would not perform your marriage. BIG DIFFERENCE.

    How dare you involve his family! Shame on You!


    Average Citizen With An Opinion

  12. kristy

    I don’t think he was wrong. He should have the right to turn down couples if he chooses to. I would be interested to know how many of the people that have commented on this story that are bi-racial, not white or black but bi-racial. There are struggles with these kids, they are discriminated against from both sides. I have a bi-racial son, and i hurt for him with what he has gone through and i agree with Mr. Bardwell they do suffer they suffer horribly. And i know all the blah blah blah of discrimination that people are going to drown me in, but unless you are bi-racial and experienced what he is talking about then step back and listen to people who have first hand knowledge on the matter, it may change your perception too. And like i said only those that are bi-racial should speak it is not the same discrimination as black and white.

  13. CC

    Dear Vivian, feel free to pack your bags and move to Pakistan. America doesn’t deserve you.

  14. L

    Can’t believe the comments telling interracial couples not to have kids. Do you think Tiger Woods should’ve never been brought into this world, as well? Don’t pretend like you’re not racists when you throw down wholly ignorant demands of a couple in love.

  15. Dot

    I totally agree with Viv. And why is it ok for some people to do what they think is morally right for them and not for others? What a double standard we have here. I applaud Mr. Bardwell for standing his ground and sticking to his beliefs.
    I am white and I have a half black grandson and emphatically YES! he has problems socially. Some of his white friend’s parents aren’t comfortable having a ‘black’ child hanging around with their kids, and some of his black friends parents refer to him as “white” even though he is brown skinned and shun him, because his mom (white) raises him alone. This little boy is put in the middle and it’s hard for him to have friends because of it. Not everyone is that way but enough are that he sees it and it hurts him. His mother could have avoided this whole hurtful mess but chose her own feelings over what would be best for her then unborn children.
    How do you explain it to a 5 yr old child without making them dislike one or the other race? You can’t, they are hurt and want to hurt back. Hence more problems arise.

  16. Matthew

    It is amazing to me how racially divided we still are and also how far we have come. I’m not surprised at what people say, but their reasons…ignorant and spineless. If you have a personal problem that you justify by calling moral and is a mere opinion of interracial marriage and bi-racial children, It’s safe to say that you fear what your pears think and perceive about you, not about the couple or the child. You could care less about all of them. You are people who never step out of your own comfort zone or speak up when you have a difference of opinion than your peers do. I’m black and Italian and grew up with discrimination from both sides. I’m also proud to be mixed. Education is the key here. Most against it are ignorant. Kids get picked on for all kinds of things. This is just something else that makes them stronger. If you have a mixed child having problems with other kids you better support them and make them feel proud of their ancestry from all sides. Teach them the history of their cultures and how they landed in the United States. If you are the mixed child having these problems find other friends. Those friends don’t deserve your friendship nor do their families. Most human beings are spineless. It takes courage to overcome our obstacles in life. You need to be a leader and most are followers. We’re all of African decent and linked one way or another. We are one Species whether you like it or not. Human beings evolved, cultures are learned and we were categorized. We all started from the same place. We’re linked until we’re extinct so learn to deal with it.

  17. Michael

    As someone in an interracial marriage with a beautiful daughter, I’m very glad that a lot of you have no say in the way I live my life and are in no way representative of how most people think.

    To say that interracial marriage is morally wrong is laughable. People that say things like that would rather have a nice white father come home to his nice white wife and white child and then proceed to beat them, than have an interracial couple who raise their children with tolerance, simply because hey, at least they were both the same color.

    Second of all, I think some people need to look up the word racist. Why is it that the worst racists always preface their comments with “I’m not racist,” as though the simple act of saying it somehow erases whatever garbage spills from their mouth. What else can your intolerance of two races marrying possibly stem from? Let me guess, you also “have a lot of black friends.”

    Third, for the person that said it is hard for a multiracial child to understand their heritage, what happens if an Irish person marries an Italian? Or is it OK because they’re both white? This whole country is made up of mixed heritage people and is what makes the nation great. If you want homogeneity, I suggest you look elsewhere, as you’re not needed in this country.

    Thankfully, my daughter will grow up to appreciate multiculturalism, and won’t be posting such ridiculously close-minded comments behind the anonymity of a blog’s comment sections. She’ll understand that the multicultural parts of our country are what make it interesting, unique, and great.

  18. nickname Jonathan

    I’m lacking information so this is what I believe and my opinion.
    Okay, if he HAS to marry everyone that asks him then why is he even there? Just send in the paper work and be done with it. So, I am going to assume he has some say in who gets married and who doesn’t. From what I have heard he referred people he didn’t marry to others who would I’d say he was more then fair. What some people are asking is that HE have no opinion no say and just marry them. Is that the democratic way? Doesn’t he have rights too? Did he give them up when he took the position he took? To the best of my knowledge he didn’t so let him be. Now, if he wasn’t supposed to have any say so then he was wrong and his resigning was correct. On the other hand, if he was to make a choice then WE the people have error-ed and are guilty of coercion.
    defined as:
    Coercion ( or ) is the practice of compelling a person or manipulating them to behave in an involuntary way (whether through action or inaction
    One could say he did this but if his job description gave him the option then he was in his right.
    Leave the man and his family alone, too many people want to sue another for their own gain and that is what I believe is going on. NOT for the rights of other because that has already be achieved since he resigned!!
    Okay, that is enough from me– you get the idea.
    My Nickname is:

  19. […] And new reader Joanna Ng sent along an article from the Oxford University Press on the former Louisiana Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell.(11/3) Here’s an excerpt: 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. Source: Keith Bardwell: Wrong But Not Alone, OUP Blog […]

  20. Erase The Hate

    AmeriKKKa has shown its true self as of late. I am glad that I was raised to love everyone. I am pretty sure that he had no right to refuse to marry anyone who pays for their marriage license. Therefore, he has no right to exercise his beliefs when it comes to any couple. You people saying that Interracial kids have a problems. No. It is you and people like you with the problem. To the Grandmother DOT, it seems that you are a racist too. Kids have problems whether they are mixed or 100%. To say that people should avoid interracial marriage because of kids is a good way to mask your racist ways. You said “His mother could have avoided this whole hurtful mess but chose her own feelings over what would be best for her then unborn children.” Maybe it is what was best for you. There are single black mothers and white mothers with non-mixed kids so your argument is asinine. You seem like one of those people who says “I’m not racist, my neighbor is black.”

  21. Erase The Hate

    By the way, I am mixed. I was surrounded with the love of my family on both sides. I’m 35 and had no issues being accepted.

  22. Steve J

    It is racists that cause mixed children to have problems. The JOP refused to marry the couple because he is racist. That is a wicked and regressive act in addition to being unconstitutional.
    One is entitled to their personal beliefs but the latter should not override the constitutional rights of others.

  23. Steve J

    My advice to this site (which will probably not be taken) is there is no need to censor comments. Let readers ascertain what people really think. Even my previous tame comments never made it.

  24. Steve J

    There is bitter irony in the JOP’s decision not to marry mixed couples. Their children have exacerbated problems because of racists like the JOP.
    It is racist not to allow mixed couples in love to marry.
    This demented philosophy that is rooted in the amount of melanin in the skin is too ugly and has no place in the modern world.

  25. Mark

    Republicans will be Republicans. I bet ChicagoIrish on Sports Hoopla agrees with him.

  26. Kylan Levi

    Seven years on from this event and our nation is no further along in its racial divide. We now have neo-Nazis openly celebrating the presidential election of a man who made those groups feel empowered through his use of code-word support during his campaign.

    As for mixed-race marriages, in America everyone is entitled to have their beliefs on that subject, including Keith Bardwell.

    But when any person accepts a government public office and takes an oath to that public office to serve ALL people in accordance with the Constitution of the United States of America, then they are not free to exercise their own discretion in the discharge of their official duties. A devout Christian working at a county clerk’s office cannot refuse to issue marriage licenses to divorced people, for example.

    If you hold fundamental beliefs of faith that prevent you from discharging the duties of a public government job, do not have that job.

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