Hold Paula Deen Accountable If You Care About Justice

Clarence "Sunshine" Thomas
Clarence “Long-Dong” Thomas

In my last post I made an appeal to forgive Paula Deenfor her use of the word “nigger” because I was feeling a sense of charity given that my general attitude toward her was already one of low expectations. I glossed over key points also due, in part, to generate a post with brevity and levity. The mild sense of sympathy I felt, however, was countered by a generalized snark and outright cynicism that comes from living as an African American woman living in the South and being a frequent observer (and occasional target) of some individuals behaving like rude, misanthropes all up, in, and through the public sphere. Granted, Southerners are generally very polite people — profusely so, in fact. Southern hospitality is an ethos that most strive to uphold. Though let us not forget, by its very definition, hospitality is a stance that is meant for dealing with strangers or outsiders. Southern hospitality is only an outward appearance; something I call, bless your heart and watch your back. Therefore, for the most part, feelings of snark overtook charity — Christian charity — Southern style.

At any rate, it’s the thing I’ve learned to cope with, dealing with all the craziness of living and working in the South. My first instinct to blow off the gravity of Deen’s actions is the result that comes from years of battle fatigue while trying to avoid bitterness, hypertension, and the gout. For years, I’ve been teaching, learning, working, and living with folk who are oblivious to the privileges and luxuries they derive from inadvertently creating the range of minor inconveniences and insurmountable disasters in the lives of the people of color surrounding them. It happens regularly, without thought, as a simple matter of routine habit. It’s something you simply become accustomed to when you’ve been living in the Carolinas for as long as I have. But of course, as we all know, feelings are emotions. And emotions have a tendency to distort clear thinking. So I write this post to say that my last post (June 25, 2013) is wrong… or at least not entirely correct. That’s right. McFarlane was wrong.

Forgiveness is a good thing, but redress is too. The reason my earlier post missed the mark is because I, like most others, was focused on the media hype. Whereas attention to the more sensational aspects of Paula Deen being politically incorrect and quite possibly rude is one thing, the fact of the matter still remains that Deen was engaging in flat out employment discrimination, which far exceeds the problem of poor interpersonal skills or bad manners. The deposition that brought Deen’s behavior to light involves sworn testimony about Deen using the power of her corporation to place white employees in the front of her business while keeping black employees in the back. In other words, Deen practiced racially discriminatory institutional policies as a matter of workplace procedure. What this means is that Paula Deen actively assigned people to differential labor categories on the basis of race — if not soley, at least partially. In so doing, Deen actively made the decision to foreclose on people’s lives, thereby limiting individual employees’ economic and social chances in life — both long and short term — including (and by no means limited to) their ability to secure reasonable housing, attain decent educational opportunities for themselves and their children, as well as achieve dignified retirements free from poverty. This is the significant issue at hand and flaws in Deen’s individual personality are only tip of the ice burg.

To look at the case of the Paula Deen, here is racism and this is how it works. It works through the material benefits and tangible privileges received by one phenotypical group at the expense of another, wherein you work other folk to death and hurt their children and their children’s children into perpetuity . However, the claim of employment discrimination is seen as altogether different from proving it, says the U.S. Supreme Court. We can thank Clarence Thomas for this little nugget of injustice. Back before Thomas was on the Supreme Court, he headed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (through the auspices of a Ronald Reagan affirmative action appointment, no less) it became federal policy to disregard claims of racial discrimination based solely on outcome. Merely demonstrating (statistically, or otherwise) that all the employees who happen to be African American get assigned to the back kitchen is irrelevant. The burden of proof demands more than that. Recent politicization of the judicial branch has resulted in numerous close split decisions. This was the EEOC policy that was legitimized once Bush 40 appointed Clarence Thomas to the high court. From the SCOTUS bench, Thomas continues to rule with other conservatives. Thomas’ record of decisions for key racial discrimination cases tends to favor the accused/offending parties. Burden of proof  rest with victims. The plaintiff/victim must not only show damages or unfavorable outcomes, but must prove it’s being done on purpose. Paula Deen’s funny little nigger jokes show how she intentionally disqualified black employees from receiving fair labor compensation. The point is this: it does matter that Deen used the n-word, but not for the reasons the media would have us believe. The outcomes of personal and symbolic racism, such as the derogatory language used by Deen in the institutional context of a public, corporate establishment effectively translates into actual and real institutional racism and substantively proves intent to discriminate. In this particular context, Deen’s use of the word “nigger” equals the kind of racism that causes infant mortality and malnutrition, premature death from stress and overwork, destroys families, shatters dreams, perpetuates intergenerational poverty and social unrest, and fundamentally undermines what it means to live in a civil society based on democratic values. Therefore, if we really care about what we allege America to be, then we have no choice but to hold Paula Deen accountable for saying nigger— even if it was in the context of telling stupid jokes.

When all is said and done (and I think we can all agree at this point that a lot was said and even more was done), the bottom basic point is that Paula Deen ought not be allowed to use the power and wealth of corporate systems to institutionalize social caste groups—not if we are to live in an ethical, fair, and meritocratic society.

Forgive Paula Deen If You Love America!

paulaAll comedy aside, I can’t help but think how this most recent racial flare-up provides an almost ritualistic purpose in society, especially during times of racial upheaval. Current circumstances brought about by legal and legislative proceedings surrounding the Trayvon Martin case, the SCOTUS in/decision on affirmative action, and Congressional reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act all provide the perfect kairos for electronic excoriation. This week’s feeding frenzy was inspired by Paul Deen being “outed” as a racist.

It seems to me that public reactions to Deen﹣whether for or against﹣say far more about our collective national ethos than about the racial attitudes of one single individual in spite of all her deep-fried-celebrity-chef craziness. Is anyone seriously surprised by a 66-year-old white woman born and bred in rural Georgia finding occasion to use the n-word every now and again? Please oh please, say it ain’t so.

You don’t have to think too long and hard recalling the vast (and by no means exhaustive) list of media personalities saying (or admitting to saying) stupid, racist comments in public or quasi-public situations… and practically always within close proximity to electronic recording devices. John MayerDon ImusMichael RichardsJimmy “the Greek” SnyderMarge Schott, et al. And just as one might expect, such behaviors are routinely chalked up to any combination of things ranging from stress caused by overwork, bad side effects from medication, excess alcohol consumption, or some other miscellaneous malady brought on by temporary chemical imbalance.

In Deen’s case, poor insulin absorption is the culprit. Of course it was. I hope Deen finds the rest and relaxation needed for her recovery during the course of her time spent in rehab, which her publicists are undoubtedly scheduling and preparing for press release as I type this sentence.

What most interests me about the Paula Deen fiasco is the social media breakout stars that have been chatting and tweeting up a storm. It’s no mistake that the Tumblr site “White People Mad at Food Network”  with its tagline, “like shooting racist fish in a racist barrel” works so well because, after all, it is easy as shooting fish in a barrel — maybe easier. Put simply, WPM@FNTumblr works. It literally functions as an apparatus that releases the pressure and social unease caused by living in a race-based society. Our focus on Paula Deen temporarily eases the pain of racism. Think of it as a numbing agent or anesthesia meant to keep us from having to be in touch with the agony of collective moral indifference and bad public policy. Beating up on Paul Deen comforts us because it releases us from having to do the real deal intellectual work. Like when you do the work of rethinking negative racial assumptions by challenging yourself and others to reject outmoded stereotypes and whatnot. Ending racism will require a great deal more heavy lifting if society ever expects to substantively fix the inequalities of structural racism brought about by white privilege and color discrimination. Or not, since that kind of stuff’s way too difficult and perilous an undertaking. (See comment thread below.)

I mean, the whole point of being American is getting other folk to do the dirty work — quick, easy (and for free if you’re smart enough to finagle it)! And what could possibly be simpler and more sensational than symbolically heaping our latest cycle of racial sins on such a gorgeously fattened, butter-fed scapegoat as the fair Miss Paula Deen? It would be a terrible shame to pass on anything so lovely and plump. Verily, verily I say unto you, Lo! We shall search among the vast cloud of interwebs and be absolved. And in return we shall feed the trolls, granting unto them one million hits. In/dependence day is just around the corner and the beat down ain’ over yet! Don’t make me crack this whip on  yo’ @$$. We only got another week or so… better grab that stick and get to swingin! Do it! Right this wrong now, I say!

Happy 4th of July, Y’all!

Cute No More?

Barack Obama started 2013 off with a new swagger. It began with the Fox News generated “Benghazi-Gate” and all the hullabaloo surrounding the non-nomination of Susan Rice for Secretary of State. From that moment, it seemed like he was down for a brawl with congressional Republicans during the first press conference after his reelection win, saying if the GOP’s leadership didn’t like the ambassador’s handling oobama-shoot_2469253bf things, “… then they’ve got a problem with [him].”

Then there’s the issue of Obama’s continued defiance in the face of House GOP members’ budget demands, which stands in clear contrast to his demeanor after the last fiscal crisis. And now with Obama’s more strident approach to gun control legislation following theNewton school massacre and other shooting incidents, there’s this recent revelation that he’s a skeet-shooting enthusiast…?

Dad jeans notwithstanding, it seems the world’s about to witness a gruffer, rougher, less cute second-term Obama. I also think the POTUS now feels less need to traffic in racial cuteness and is more comfortable moving toward a more formidable leadership image — and this could be a good thing on some level. (Not that I’m thrilled about gun sports or drone attacks or extra-legal assassinations or that sort of thing.)