Paula Deen shows racism has not gone away

Over the past few weeks Paula Deen has gone from so-called celebrity chef to national pariah – and rightfully so.

The admitted use of the “n word”, the desire to see a plantation-style wedding and the Lisa T. Jackson lawsuit  – filed against Deen and her brother accusing them of sexual discrimination and racism at a Deen-owned restaurant – alone justify Deen’s pariah status.

Under pressure, she has issued public apologies of sorts. But Deen has refused to honestly acknowledge her words and actions. Instead she claims the accusations are “horrible, horrible lies” perpetrated by “someone evil out there” who wants what she has.

Deen’s response to the scandal has verged on the ridiculous at times. For example, she claims to only be “prejudiced against … thieves and liars” – apparently she means the people bringing the accusations against her.

She attempted to claim the mantle of righteous indignation when she said, “If there’s anyone out there that has never said something that they wish they could take back, if you’re out there, please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me.”

While we could speculate that Deen may have had a complete break with reality, her personal mental health isn’t the main issue here. Her denial of racism is. It serves to highlight the insidious nature of oppression in today’s society, as people like Deen not only deny their racism, but also claim to be the victim.

That a celebrity with a TV show, multi-million-dollar endorsement deals, recipe books, brand-name cookware, restaurants, etc., can claim to be a victim while being so successful for so long only serves to illustrate the point that racism today is different from Jim Crow “legal” racism.

Racism today is hidden, denied, and treated like a thing of the past. In Deen’s mind the “South is almost less prejudiced [than the North], because black folks played such an integral part in our lives. They were like our family.”

The nostalgia Deen has for this bygone way of life, this bygone era, is further proof of her racism, even if it is unconscious racism, as the South she imagines so dearly was a society based on lynch law and slavery, a society where African Americans were seen as second class citizens, servants and slaves to be bought and sold.  

Deen is oblivious to or completely ignores the structures of racism, designed to institutionalized and perpetuate the continued exploitation and subjugation of people of color. She refuses to see how her comments and actions – as a well-known celebrity – reinforce those structures of oppression.

To their credit a number of endorsers – including the Food Network, Smithfield Foods, Caesars Entertainment Corp. and Walmart – have severed ties with Deen. While I can only speculate, in my opinion their actions have more to do with money concerns than with a sincere commitment to anti-racism.

Regardless, the public outcry against Deen is heartening, as it wasn’t so long ago in our nation’s history that celebrities could make similar comments with little or no public scrutiny, with little or no fear of losing their jobs.  

Troubling, however, is the fact that some fans have flocked to Deen’s restaurants in support, and advance orders for her new book have surged amidst the scandal. Apparently, some of Deen’s fans see her as a victim, too.

While the final outcome to this scandal remains to be seen, I am optimistic that the controversy surrounding Deen will serve to shed new light on our nation’s racist history and the insidious nature of racism today.   

Paula Deen’s comments and actions, the Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act and the unfolding court hearing of the Trayvon Martin murder case are all reasons to pause and recommit ourselves to the struggle against racism in all its forms, the insidious and the obvious.  

Photo: Paula Deen is a walking Smithfield Foods ad, at the Bristol, Tenn., Motor Speedway in 2007. Bristol Motor Speedway & Dragway CC 2.0





Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.