Keith Bardwell, justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish, La., is one of the reasons that people elsewhere in the country think the South is home to nincompoops and Neanderthals.
I cannot tell you how many highly educated people have told me over the years that they hesitated to take jobs in Georgia or South Carolina or Mississippi because of concern over the quality of education. The first question I get from people considering a move here is, “What are the schools like in Georgia?”
And idiots like Bardwell contribute to the myth that we are all wearing plastic bags on our feet and eating red clay. In reading the story about Bardwell denying a marriage license to an interracial couple for concern over any future children they may have, I turned to my co-workers and asked, “Why do all these lunatics have to come from the South?”
“I’m not a racist. I just don’t believe in mixing the races that way,” Bardwell told the Associated Press. “I have piles and piles of black friends. They come to my home, I marry them, they use my bathroom. I treat them just like everyone else.”
I know that some Southerners don’t care about the stereotypes, noting correctly that industries have been flocking here anyway. But it was cheap land and cheap labor that drew many of them.
Now, we want the higher-paying jobs to come here. Richard Anderson, the chief executive of Delta Air Lines, was quoted in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this year explaining why many of the Northwest Airlines employees relocating to Georgia from Minnesota will look for private schools for their children:
“I think the high school graduation rates and the quality of the graduates that we have coming out of the schools in Georgia need to be a lot higher.”
That’s the impression of the South that we have to counter, and that’s what characters like Bardwell make even harder.