As someone born and reared in the South I need to say something about this week's scandal du jour, Paula Deen's use and apologies for using inappropriate racial language. Too much broadcast air time, Web space and spilled ink is being wasted by well-meaning people trying to stuff poop back into an elephant (uh -- no pun intended, I suppose) after it's already in the street.
There is no longer any excuse for anybody to use derogatory language about race. Period. I'm sorry, but in this case no longer means no longer. Yes, I know it is still used by those who may themselves be victims, or comedians, script-writers for TV and movies and any number of others. But all those examples do not excuse anyone from such language who wants to be regarded as polite, civilized, good company to be around. It's like trying to claim that drinking "caused me to do it" for regrettable actions or words. I don't buy it. Not any more.
I was spoon fed racism from my childhood and didn't shake free until I became an adult. And mine was not the malignant, toxic variety of racism that made the news. Mine was that of a cultivated white Southerner, explained with Christian love and the sincerest of convictions that there are important racial differences among mankind, put there by the Creator (as explained in the Bible) and it is a violation of God's laws to violate those divine laws. No one in my family was allowed to say Nigger. We were invariably carefully coached to pronounce the word Neegro. I was told never to use the word Black, but to say Colored Person instead. My grandmother (who was the only person I ever heard use the word "octoroon" in a sentence) made a distinction between White Lady and Colored Woman. And I will never forget the first time as a nineteen year old college freshman sitting in the back seat of a car between two black passengers to note that they didn't have any disagreeable body odor. Even as late as my twenties I was talking to someone about my high school days and when I mentioned that "there were only three high schools where I grew up" I suddenly realized that what I said was not true. There were indeed three white-only high schools at that time in Columbus, Georgia, but there were also two schools attended by Black students. And this embarrassing realization still came after I had proudly participated in the civil rights movement and spent a tour of duty in the Army! Years after I thought myself free of racism that vestige was still there, waiting to be discovered and expunged.
The Paula Deen story is not about food. Or butter and sugar. It is not about history or culture or "growing up in a different era." It's about overlooking or not overlooking racism in whatever remnant form it remains. When it shows up, it needs to be rooted out. Like my buried memory of three white high schools, there remain very close to the surface of our society -- at a time we all want to feel "enlightened" and sensitive to delicate matters -- toxic places that are the cultural equivalent of pre-cancerous, little innocent-looking spots that a sample sent to the culture lab for analysis will be returned labeled "malignant."
Ms. Deen's apparently casual and repeated use of racial stereotypes, even by her own admission, is much different from a slip of the tongue. Those rushing to defend the use of racist language, hers or anyone elses, as a protected First Amendment right, are welcome to make that argument. My response is that if the Bill of Rights is all that separates us from savagery we are more dangerously close to that edge than I am willing to accept. I have heard talk-show hosts skating very close to the edge of racist eugenics in an effort to stir up controversy and attract listeners, but standing under the protection of the law is not even close to taking the moral high ground.
Elected representatives sometimes use dog whistle messages to racist elements of their constituencies to signal a presumed agreement with their beliefs. It's hard to know who is being political and who is speaking from the heart. But just as I can't give others a pass on racism, intended or not, I cannot overlook racism in leaders. Elected representatives, if anything, have a greater burden than most to work against prejudice. And the same higher standard applies to prominent people in the public spotlight. A well understood biblical principle applies here. Those to whom much is given, much is required. And in the case of overcoming racism in our society, the biggest challenges are not behind us. The really big challenges remain ahead. And to the Paula Deens of the world my message is "lead, follow or get out of the way."
Here is my afterthought...
I know how Paula Deen might recover from the train wreck caused by her language, but I doubt she can do it, or wants to. There is a very close connection between her type of Southern cooking and traditional soul food from the Black community. If she could find a black sister with the right background and temperament, together they could create a brand that would overcome the mess we now see.
Lester Maddox and his wife were among my many customers in the cafeteria business for years. He became governor of Georgia more by political accident than popular vote, but once there he didn't do too bad as the state's chief executive. He remained the racist he was known to be and never changed his stripes. But in an old-fashioned Southern way he seemed a little less hateful because of his treatment and recognition of black Georgians. One of his campaigns was to improve the state's prison system and he is remembered for staffing more blacks to appointed jobs than any of his predecessors. Among his many PR antics was teaming up with a black former employee in a variety act tagged "The Governor and the Dishwasher."
Here are a couple of fun reads Ms. Deen might check for ideas.
First is from 1977.
The strange but true tale of Georgia's unlikeliest governor
|St. Petersburg Times, May 21, 1977|
(Click for larger image)
The strange but true tale of Georgia's unlikeliest governor
by Hal Jacobs in Atlanta's Creative Loafing, March 20, 1999
When African-Americans tried to integrate the restaurant in April 1964, after an unsuccessful attempt the year before, Lester "Pickrick" Maddox put the pick handles -- and a high-pressure water hose -- to another use. No, he and his employees never assaulted anyone, but on July 3, 1964, Maddox did swing a handle and bash the car roof of a black minister. He also waved a pistol and was hauled into court on gun charges, but was later acquitted by an all-white jury.
By not serving blacks in his restaurant, Maddox says he was merely exercising one of the rights of private ownership guaranteed all Americans by the Constitution. When he closed the restaurant rather than integrate under a federal injunction, he said that "my President, my Congress and the Communists have closed my business and ended a childhood dream."
It was never solely about race, Maddox says; it was about free enterprise. But because he had injected ugly race talk into his earlier political campaigns for mayor, his racial views now colored everything. Instead of the media covering the story about the little guy who defended his restaurant against the big, bad government, reporters covered the story of the little, white racist threatening black ministers and college students with ax handles.
To his blue-collar customers, who bought thousands of red handles known as "Pickrick drumsticks," Maddox became a folk hero. To the Atlanta business and social elite, he became the bumbling redneck who tarnished the reputation of "The City Too Busy To Hate." To the media, Maddox became the archetype of the Southern racist businessman, albeit a quick-witted one who was always available for a sound byte or a platter of delicious fried chicken, as he circulated through the restaurant, shaking hands and entertaining customers. State Rep. Billy McKinney of Atlanta remembers shaking Maddox's hand in 1964.
"He was selling his ax handles, and we went out to the place there, out to the Pickrick, and I fooled him. I grabbed his hand to shake it, and I wouldn't turn it loose. I had him. He had a little .22 or a little .25 or something -- one of those little, bitty guns -- and he tried to get his gun.
"But I held his hand. And I told him, 'I got your goddamn hand.'"And by all means take a look at Governor Maddox's four-thousand-plus words rebuttal-response to this article.