Over the last few weeks, since Paula Deen’s use of the N-word became public, Deen’s cooking empire has crumbled. Many of the corporations associated with Deen have severed their ties with her, including Food Network and Random House’s Ballantine Books, the would-be publisher of her next cookbook, Paula Deen’s New Testament. Even Walmart, which (allegedly) is no saint when it comes to equality, has dropped Deen.
At 66-years-old, Deen was born before the Civil Rights Movement and is from Albany, Georgia, home of Laurie Pritchett, the segregationist chief of police, who in Martin Luther King’s words, used “the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral ends of racial injustice.” Deen insists that her use of the racist term is decades old, but it’s interesting that these revelations come from her deposition in a sexual and racial harassment suit against Deen and her brother. To be fair, though, the allegations against them have yet to be proven. [Max at Litigation and Trial explores how Deen’s lawyers may have contributed to her downfall]
So, if Paula Deen’s admitted racist behavior is anywhere from several years to several decades old, and if the allegations against her and her brother in the recent complaint remain unproven, what is behind the public’s strong negative reaction? What is it that made Deen’s publisher pull her cookbook after it had reached best-seller status on its pre-orders alone? She’s hardly the only celebrity to use offensive slurs; just ask Alec Baldwin.
On one level, the N-word has extraordinary force in our culture, perhaps greater force than virtually any other bigoted insult; the racial epithet makes me so uncomfortable that I’m unable to write the full word, even when talking about Professor Kennedy’s book on my blog (a book I’ve discussed briefly in a previous post, Cleansing Racist Themes From Children’s Books; a portion of its cover is above). As the subtitle of Kennedy’s book encapsulates, it’s a “troublesome word,” one that can “be said in many ways, put to many uses, and mean many things,” one that, “when hurled as an insult… necessarily inflicts more distress than other racial epithets.”
It is also a reminder of our racist past in this country, a past that is not as distant as the U.S. Supreme Court implied when it eviscerated our Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder and subtly eroded the legality of affirmative action policies in Fisher v. University of Texas last week. Racism continues to play a factor in, for example, hiring and promotion decisions, neighborhood de facto segregation, and in the jury box, and its pernicious existence is often far less obvious than the racial epithet Deen has admitted to using.
Rightly or wrongly, Paula Deen’s deposition caused her to transition in the public consciousness from being a part of the charming New South to being a part of the racist Old South, and so she had to be banished from our kitchens, televisions, and cookbooks, lest she remind us of our own past.* Now we can feel better about ourselves, while we sit back and watch a majority of our Supreme Court Justices — appointed and confirmed by our elected officials — do everything they can to dismantle the progress we’ve made since the Civil Rights Movement.
Unfortunately, there seems to be more outrage over the words of a celebrity chef than over the actions of our highest court, one that research suggests listens to public opinion.
*When talking about the “presence” of the past, a certain controversial William Faulkner quote referenced in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris comes to mind, but I’ll refrain from using it here in light of the frivolous litigation his estate has initiated over it. [7/20/13: See this update to the Faulkner litigation]