Paula Deen & The Supreme Court: Is There Enough Outrage to Go Around?

Paula Deen Book and Randall Kennedy BookOver 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]


  1. You may have just hit the nail on the head. Citizens are powerless to do anything about the Supreme Court decision. Citizens are even powerless to rid the world of prejudice and racism. But we can take on and punish Paula Dean. What she said, if it is true, is deplorable. Personally I don’t think we should let anyone get away with such behaviour.

  2. re “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.”

    This is so true. The justices’ actions will have a much stronger negative effect through their disempowerment of racial minorities, and yet we let that go.

  3. I was going to ask the same question… what about freedom of speech? Was it not said in the privacy of her own home to her husband regarding a person doing an illegal act? Too bad she did not lie to save herself and her empire! It makes one wonder why this country needed to tear her down over something she honestly admitted. I will NOT support the companies that persecuted her. I would never use the term, but with all the folks that use it everyday on the streets, it really seems like the witch hunt mentioned above.

  4. I appreciate this post pointing out that what happened to Deen may not be fair, and while that may be a shame for her, her career (as a TV chef, author, etc.) seems based entirely on her reputation, and when that reputation no longer has any “goodwill” assets, there is no career. Perhaps this is a cautionary corollary to the “personal branding” ideology. If Deen’s career didn’t depend on the totality of her personality — say, if she was a line cook at a chain restaurant — those who pay her wouldn’t care if she said offensive things. But then, of course, she’d be only earning “worker” wages, not celebrity wages.

    1. You make a very good point. Deen’s career depends on her reputation, and her sponsors assume the public won’t forgive her.* She cooks and owns restaurants, but that’s not what sells her TV shows and cookbooks. Other high profile individuals, such as Chick-fil-A’s Dan Cathy, have been able to get away with holding repugnant views because the company isn’t built on Cathy’s reputation and, for some reason, the public can’t resist that chicken sandwich (and our society seems more tolerant of homophobia than racism).

      *However, it looks like Deen’s books are selling even better after the scandal.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I’ve wondered how this scandal appears to people outside of the US (I have no idea whether Paula Deen is even famous in other countries).

  5. What I don’t understand, and maybe I just haven’t read enough into the issue, is if Paula Deen even made some of the remarks that she is being sued for. Was there sexual harassment as it is being claimed? Did she really say that she wanted a southern plantation wedding? These seem to be treated like fact when no such proof (as far as I am aware) exists of this. It seems the last time she claims to have used the offensive word was when describing someone who held a gun to her head. I know she suffered from anxiety for two decades and can only imagine what it would be like to be in that situation. I do not defend her use of the word, and surely do not defend harassment if it is true, but at what point does the past become the past? Or is this word too strong to be ignored? I guess the question we will have to find out is whether or not a single word can ruin a career?

    1. Paula Deen admitted to use of the N-word in her deposition, but said it was a long time ago. In the complaint against Deen and her brother (available here:, paragraph 51 alleges that Deen used the N-word while discussing a plantation-style wedding for her brother in 2007 (I believe Deen denied usage of the N-word in this context). All of the allegations relate to events between 2005 and 2010, and most of them concern Deen’s brother.

      I don’t know when it’s appropriate to forgive and forget past usage of such a derogatory word. It depends on the context of its usage and how much the person who used it has changed. I am reluctant to rush to judgment while the civil justice system hasn’t yet finished its work (but it isn’t my place to decide).

  6. The date that the outrage occurred in was in 1960, when the term was widely used. Either way I agree with witch hunt comment. I think she should retire and move on. No one is going to forgive her, no matter in what context or when it was said.

  7. I don’t like this Paula Deen thing one bit. It reeks way too much of a witch hunt. Free speech is free speech is free speech. I don’t like her choice of language, but if we want all speech to be protected, then all speech needs to be protected. Now if private companies want to part ways because of what an employee says, that’s up to them, but this wasn’t even something she said on network TV or in public. It was something no one even had to know about if she hadn’t fessed up the truth (about muttering it while being robbed 30 yrs ago). It’s a smear campaign and a money scam and it’s disgusting, both in that it’s even happening and that our agenda-driven media is only too happy to fan the flames to prove their “we’re not racist, see” creds.

    1. How her use of the racial epithet came to light is mind-boggling. Whether she “fessed up” to a decades-old action or not, her defense team should have tried to keep the deposition confidential (Max talks about this in his post). At the very least, I’d like to see what the civil justice system comes up with after its had an opportunity to sort through the allegations in the complaint. The media latched onto the story, and her sponsors dropped her when they thought the public wouldn’t forgive her. It’s interesting, though, that her books are selling even better after this scandal (

  8. I grew up in a small East Texas town in the 70s, where I heard the n-word weekly. Never while any blacks were around, of course. Deen is of my parents’ generation, and they were largely racist, by modern standards. But I, and my parents, outgrew that culture. I hope Deen hasn’t lost her career because of old stuff she was honest about. That will just reinforce secrecy, and holding on to old ideas. Maybe we need a reconciliation council, like they did in South Africa. Let’s get it all out there, apologize, and move on.

  9. Your post sums up a lot of the problems I have with internet outrage culture. I keep being reminded of an article I read about Chinese government censors. Supposedly, the censors will frequently turn a blind eye to long anti-government rants, but they will crack down on even the slightest mention of organized action. The intent is to funnel people’s outrage (and time and energy) into words concentrated in certain sectors of the internet, reducing the impact of political dissent while making the dissenters feel like they’re doing something.

    I think you’re absolutely right that we’re loading our national shame onto Paula Deen’s back and casting her out into the desert so that we can feel like we’ve done something about racism without actually exerting any effort (or losing any of the advantages institutionalized racism has afforded us). In fact, I’ll bet that many of the people heaping vitriol on Paula Deen would approve of the Supreme Court decision were they to actually bother reading about it.

    1. Yes, it does seem like this whole thing is more about our national shame than about Deen. I wish the public would pay more attention to what’s happening in our legal system and less attention to celebrity gossip (at least until the civil justice system has had an opportunity to finish its work). Thanks for commenting!

  10. I attribute Deen’s downfall to two things: 1) the lack of clarity in the news reports about when she last used the n-word; and 2) the lack of a clear message in the televised reports of her efforts to make amends for past offensive behavior. Both of these situations involve editing by persons who seek to sell news. News sells when the celebrity behind the story can be celebrated or dragged through mud.

    To this day I am uncertain when Deen last used the n-word. It sounds like old behavior, but, as you correctly point out, there is an ongoing lawsuit over alleged racial discrimination. The idea that smoke means fire has often led society to eject a celebrity (for awhile). Although the media (an enterprise even larger than news) will say it reports accurately, there appears to be no one speaking for Deen and she has done a poor job of speaking for herself. I fear we are as a society acting prematurely to, as you suggest, appease our own consciences about our collective responsibility for the fact that our society still has a way to go to behave in a colorblind fashion.

    Deen did not take the benefit of sound PR advice in her handling of the news. We like a good apology. She may have offered one. I can only say that I have not seen one in the news clips selected for airing. She looks defensive and anguished–but mostly about the losses she is suffering and not about having done harm. If she did no harm, then her behavior may be adequate. But, where is the PR management of the situation?

    You cannot be celebrity today without being subject to enough vagaries of public sentiment to get dizzy on a good day. This is a PR nightmare in need of an expert’s advice. It most likely can be turned around. But, unlike misunderstandings in ordinary humans’ lives, this is going to take a proper apology for real and imagined slights and a camera controlled by someone whose job it is to be the sympathetic but independent arbiter of right and wrong in the artificial world of celebrity. Why has no one called Oprah, Katie, Ellen, or some other supreme court of public opinion judge to take the testimony, hear the defendant’s elocution, and pronounce sentence? That’s right, it sounds like a September new season coup. Stay tuned for more later.

    As for the Supreme Court, it has forgiven the wrongs of earlier times and thinks we are prepared to move on. I’m not sure we have or are. But that panel’s decrees are the law of the land. We now need to turn to a legislature for assistance. I am sad to admit that the Congress is too polarized to help. I fear we will face rough times ahead because the memories of some wounds are not healed by a half hour show in September.

    1. Yes, accusing a celebrity of racism certainly gets the public’s attention. The N-word is a very controversial term, and everyone will have a different opinion about when it’s appropriate to forgive and forget its past usage, but I hesitate to judge Paula Deen until the civil justice system has had an opportunity to compete its work. Maybe I’d feel more comfortable labeling her a racist if the allegations and timeline were clearer than it seems to be–everything in the complaint happened before 2010 and, if I remember correctly, Deen only admitted to using the N-word a long time ago.

      With the Supreme Court, the battle isn’t over in the court system on these issues because lower courts still have the job of figuring out how to apply our highest court’s pronouncements. There’s often wiggle room in opinions with so much dicta. At the end of the day, though, a legislative solution would be better. Perhaps the public’s reaction to Paula Deen will help draw attention to the persistence of racism in our culture, but it might not be the best example. Overreactions to perceived racism, to the extent the Deen scenario is an overreaction (and I’m not sure), often unleashes a backlash that harms genuine efforts to root out racism and its effects.

      Thanks for your very thoughtful comment.

  11. New south, old south. I don’t know what I think of the whole thing…but you really summed it up. It’s easier to eviscerate a public figure, then it is to hunker down and really do the leg work of keeping track of what the courts are up to.

    1. Wow, your post really summed up the problem here. And I completely agree with Jae, this whole thing stinks of a witch hunt, and even though I don’t like the N word and will never use it myself, I think that this is all going against freedom of speech.

      1. Yeah, we are reacting quite strongly, perhaps too strongly, to Deen’s admitted past use of the word. It sounds like it was a very long time ago. To the extent the more recent allegations in the complaint are true (which are all 2010 or earlier), Deen could be an example of how racism continues to thrive, but I wouldn’t want to jump to conclusions. The civil justice system needs time to sort this one out.

    2. Yeah, it’s much easier to eviscerate a celebrity for her words than it is to do anything about real racism. If the allegations in the complaint are true, Deen and her brother may be an example of how racism continues to thrive (of course, nothing alleged happened after 2010), but if it’s untrue or an exaggeration, then the public’s overreaction to it might cause a backlash against genuine actions to address racism.

      1. I know, I agree. It just may end up confusing the whole issue, and that just leads to more people feeling justified in their racist commentary, and thought patterns.

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