Paula Deen on the Today Show. (AP Photo/NBC, Peter Kramer)
Paula Deen on the “Today Show.” (AP Photo/NBC, Peter Kramer)

Something got lost in all the hullabaloo about Paula Deen and her desire to have a good ol’ Southern plantation wedding for her brother. Everyone focused on whether she dropped the N-word to described the black men and women who might work the event. But what Deen actually said in a deposition in the $1.2 million discrimination suit against her was far worse.

Deen acknowledged having said the N-word before. During a robbery, she told Matt Lauer last week. What Deen denied during that deposition was saying, “Well, what I would really like is a bunch of little n—–s to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around.” She did admit to talking about the way the “middle-aged black men” were dressed at a restaurant she and her husband had visited that inspired her dream of Dixie nuptials. And then came this exchange during the deposition.

Q. Is there any possibility, in your mind, that you slipped and used the word “n—-r”?

A. No, because that’s not what these men were. They were professional black men doing a fabulous job.

With that answer, Deen revealed a racist mind-set that is much worse than actually uttering the most offensive word in the English language. For she made a distinction between n—–s (“that’s not what these men were”) and “professional black men.”

When I was a kid at a predominantly white grade school, a friend paid me what she thought was a compliment. “There are black people and there are n—–s,” she told me. “You are a black person.” All these years, I haven’t forgotten it because it was at once thrilling and appalling. Like any kid in a new school, I wanted to make friends, fit in and be accepted. Yet, earning a white people’s exemption from being lumped in with the rest of them (read, n—–s) left me feeling compromised and gross.

So, more than 30 years after my experience, I can’t help but wonder what are n—–s in Deen’s mind, especially when compared to “professional black men”? Am I to infer by her answer that she considers n—–s to be lazy, shiftless folks sucking on the public teat?  What’s dangerous about distinguishing n—–s from “professional black men” — let’s just call them “good blacks — is that one person’s good black is another person’s n—–r. It all depends on whether said n—–r is known personally to the racist passing judgment. Not that that matters if he or she is making such a distinction in the first place.

Yes, I know comedian Chris Rock has a whole funny routine on the distinction between “blacks” and “n—–s.” But he’s black, a comedian and allowed some license.

Deen issued a couple of apologies after the controversy erupted late last month. Her tearful apology on the “Today Show” last week proved unmoving to me — and to more than a few of her now-former business partners. Yes, our nation has come a long way from the days when the N-word rained down on African Americans like confetti. But what difference does it make when folks are still separating blacks into two categories: those worthy of respect, however grudging, and those who are not?

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Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.