Last week the ugly specter of racism appeared once again when Louisiana Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell denied a marriage license to a couple simply for being interracial. While the incident must have been painful for the couple, it also points out more broadly that we have not yet completely extricated bigotry from our culture. Accordingly, if any good comes from this event, hopefully it will include reminding people that prejudice is still something that needs to be confronted head-on.
In the past week or so, that is exactly what has happened and Bardwell’s actions have been condemned by just about everyone. Organizations like the ACLU have naturally called for Bardwell’s ouster, as have political leaders like Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and the state’s superstar Republican governor Bobby Jindal. Furthermore, much of this non-partisan criticism has emphasized that, while Bardwell’s actions were personally repugnant, they also violated laws prohibiting race-based discrimination.
The most surprising part of this whole story, given the virtually universal consensus that Bardwell’s actions were the definition of bigotry, is that Bardwell himself insists he isn’t a bigot. The Associated Press quoted him as saying that he isn’t a racist and that he does “ceremonies for black couples right here in my house.” Indeed, Bardwell isn’t a reputed member of the Ku Klux Klan and there are no reports that he has ever been intentionally insulting, disparaging, or violent to people of ethnicities other than his own. In other words, Bardwell has probably not participated in such extreme acts of prejudice that many people (including myself) have only seen on videos in high school history classes.
Despite Bardwell’s insistence to the contrary, however, his actions clearly do constitute prejudice, discrimination and bigotry, as everyone else in America seems to realize. His bigotry is simply subtle, to the point that he is apparently unaware of it himself. When asked, Bardwell said he tries “to treat everyone equally.” Unfortunately, his version of equality obviously includes arbitrarily denying some people the right to marry, simply because he doesn’t approve of who they’ve fallen in love with or because laws would have kept them apart in bygone eras.
Perhaps the most important lesson that can be taken from this incident then, is that contemporary bigotry often takes the form of well-intentioned and soft-spoken attempts to impose a particular set of values on people who don’t want them. Sometimes bigotry even becomes apparent as people try to look out for the well-being of others; Bardwell, after all, doesn’t do interracial marriages because, he said, “in my heart, I feel the children will later suffer.” Clearly there are times when people believe they are doing the right thing and watching out for others, but just as clearly those beliefs can end with blatant discrimination.
In the aftermath of this whole event, it might be interesting to hear from people like Bardwell — who evidently feel they have a monopoly on the definition of marriage — just what is required to earn the moniker of “bigot.” Spit on someone? Burn a cross? Lynch or light a person on fire?
In many parts of the country, such acts of extreme violence are a part of the past. That doesn’t mean, however, that prejudice has disappeared. Instead, it manifests itself in gross stereotypes, insensitive humor, and an absolute conviction that everyone should live according to one set of values. Hopefully this occasion exposes and begins to expel those behaviors as it reveals that bigotry is sometimes as simple as feeling you have the right to tell people how to live (or marry), simply because those people are different.
Jim Dalrymple is a popular culture writer for Rhombus, who occasionally touches on political issues. His band, Electron Deception, was featured in this week’s Daily Universe music podcast. Listen to it here.
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