The Washington Post

What Paula Deen could teach the Supreme Court

Paula Deen on the ‘Today Show’ this week. (Peter Kramer / NBC via AP)

Why, in a week of multiple important Supreme Court decisions, are we so focused on the racial sins and multiple apologies of country cooking’s Paula Deen?

In part, of course, it’s because we brake for train wrecks, preferring them even to this week’s twin local animal stories about Rusty the runaway red panda and the black bear cub running through backyards in Northwest Washington.

But we’re also clicking on the Deen-athon because the “Oprah of food,” as one of the cook’s 2.7 million Facebook fans calls her, is a symbol and a symptom — a walking, talking, crying and deep-frying reminder of how much we still need both affirmative action and a fully functional Voting Rights Act.

Deen, who told NBC’s Matt Lauer, “I is what I is and I’m not changing,” was wrong about that: She’s already lost her cooking show, her deals with Smithfield Foods, Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Target. All that and more slipped away since the news that she’d admitted in a legal deposition that “of course” she’s used a racial slur in the distant past, and dreamed of throwing her brother Bubba a “plantation-themed” wedding dinner served by an all-black wait staff.

Now even Novo Nordisk has, by supposedly mutual agreement, suspended the woman who brought the world skillet-fried apple pie as spokeswoman for its diabetes drug. But she is the perfect spokeswoman for a week in which a number of the biggest stories circle back to the issue of inequality. To our flawed efforts to live up to that shimmery line in our Declaration of Independence about the apparently not-so-self-evident truth that we are all created equal.

In Florida, where George Zimmerman is on trial in the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin, the friend Martin was on the phone with just before he died testified that he said, “That ‘N-word’ is still following me now.’ I asked him how the man looked like. He just told me the man looked ‘creepy.’ ‘Creepy, white’ — excuse my language — ‘cracker. Creepy [expletive] cracker.” So we’ve been told that Zimmerman saw Martin through a racial lens. And now know that Martin saw Zimmerman that way.

In California, same-sex couples will soon be free to marry, but they still can’t walk down the aisle in 38 other states. And despite the high court’s thumbs down on the Defense of Marriage Act, we’re still nowhere near equality for an awful lot of Americans.

Which is why the saddest headline of the week had to be the one announcing that, as the civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis put it, “the Supreme Court has stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act” and “gutted the most powerful tool this nation has ever had to stop discriminatory voting practices from becoming law.” So Mississippi and Texas can implement voter ID laws that, whatever their intent, will disenfranchise minority voters.

Across the land, meantime, disappointed white college applicants have effectively been invited to challenge race-conscious admissions plans like the one in the Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin case, which the Supreme Court sent back to a lower court for further review. “The worst forms of racial discrimination in this nation have always been accompanied by straight-faced representations that discrimination helped minorities,” Clarence Thomas wrote in his concurring opinion. He’s long seen affirmative action as a vote of no confidence, suggesting that maybe minorities aren’t as good as anybody else.

I’m not puzzled about why he might feel that way; when someone recently observed — pleasantly, with a hug and no ill intent — that my contribution to a certain group was to keep it from being all-male, I smiled on the outside yet inside, narrowed my eyes and gave him the invisible Death Stare.

But the problems caused by affirmative action are nothing compared to what the lack of diversity gets us: Just for example, a 66-year-old millionaire who still doesn’t know not to brag that she has a friend who is “black as a board.”  Who somehow reached retirement age and became a big darn deal without ever learning that yes, the racial slur in question is offensive. Or that “plantation-style” is not a festive party theme.

Matt Lauer finally did make me feel for her, acting like some latter-day Jean Le Maistre demanding on behalf of the Inquisition that Joan of Arc forsake men’s clothing in prison. (Though if Joan responded that he who is without sin should “pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me,” I don’t want to know.)  We all pay the price for that kind of not-at-all-benign cluelessness. And for her blind spots and all of ours, what better antidote do we have than the civil rights remedies undermined this week by our highest court?

Melinda Henneberger
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and She the People anchor. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.




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