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If You Think Paula Deen Is Our Biggest Race Problem, Think Again

This article is more than 7 years old.

Should TV chef Paula Deen, the doyenne of grits and gravy, have been fired by the Food Network because she admitted that years ago, she had used the N-word?

Deen was grilled about her racial beliefs by an attorney for an employee who was fired by a restaurant in Georgia owned by Deen and her brother, Earl W. “Bubba” Hiers. The employee claimed that she had been subjected to sexual harassment and a climate of racial intimidation while working at the restaurant.

The lawyer for the defendant asked Deen what can only be called a “gotcha question” — inquiring if the chef had ever used the N-word. Deen, a 66-year-old woman who grew up in the Deep South, told the truth — perhaps stupidly. Yes, she had, but not for many years.

We’d rather focus our scorn on a down home, platinum blonde purveyor of Southern comfort calories than on the dull statistics of child poverty.

The case has become a media sensation. It proves that George Orwell was spot on when he said, “Language is politics.” And racial politics in America are especially charged.

I spent some time in the Jim Crow South as a child, when my father was assigned to a naval base in Foley, Alabama. I never heard the N-word from my parents, northern liberals, but I sure did hear it all around me in the South. Some people used it with hostility and disdain; others almost casually, as if they were somehow unaware of the humiliation and insult behind the word.

But before we in the North sneer and proclaim our moral superiority, we should remember that racism still exists in the Bay State; our history is not all Abolition and Underground Railway. Just remember Stanley Forman’s Pulitzer Prize winning photo of a black city official being speared by the tip of an American flag wielded by a white man during the days of busing.

Paula Deen should have been suspended, but not fired, since there appears to be no evidence that she has used the word in the recent past. Of course, Deen hardly helped her cause when she spoke admiringly about a “Southern plantation wedding” at which the middle-aged African American male waiters wore white dinner jackets. That’s a stupid remark, but hardly on a par with a burning cross.

Public opinion is divided. Some feel that Deen’s recipes (butter gravy pie and puff pastry, anyone?) will do more to harm to African Americans than her stupid comments ever could. Never mind her, they say. Others believe that Deen’s use of the N-word, no matter how long ago, is grounds for termination.

Will the dust-up end Deen’s mega-successful career, with an estimated $8 million in annual revenue from her cookbooks and endorsements? Probably not.

My problem is that this is the discussion of racism that makes the news. Meanwhile, the real issues — like cuts in food stamps that will devastate poor inner city families, or cuts in Medicare that will mean slashing services to seniors and children — get nary a mention. Child poverty rates are soaring, especially among minority children.

According to a recent report, African-American children have a 39 percent poverty rate, almost three times that of white children.

They also largely have inferior educational opportunities. Writing for The Washington Post, Michael Holzman, the author of “The Black Poverty Cycle and How to End It” says, “A black student in an integrated suburban school — without regard to that student’s family income — can be as much as six times more likely to graduate on-time and college-ready than a black student in a segregated urban school.”

But how often do such issues dominate the discussion of race, especially in our celebrity crazed, scandal-obsessed media? We’d rather focus our scorn on a down home, platinum purveyor of Southern comfort calories than on the dull statistics of child poverty.Who wants a picture of a poor African American kid munching on an overpriced Twinkie from the local convenience store? How many hits would that get on YouTube?


This program aired on June 28, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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