Skip to main content

Paula Deen's words echo South's racist past

By James C. Moore, Special to CNN
June 26, 2013 -- Updated 2238 GMT (0638 HKT)
Southern TV personality and chef Paula Deen is the author of 14 cookbooks, runs a bi-monthly magazine and is the owner of Savannah restaurant The Lady and Sons. Here she attends the 2010 CMT Music Awards at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. Southern TV personality and chef Paula Deen is the author of 14 cookbooks, runs a bi-monthly magazine and is the owner of Savannah restaurant The Lady and Sons. Here she attends the 2010 CMT Music Awards at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
HIDE CAPTION
Southern TV chef Paula Deen
Southern TV chef Paula Deen
Southern TV chef Paula Deen
Southern TV chef Paula Deen
Southern TV chef Paula Deen
Southern TV chef Paula Deen
Southern TV chef Paula Deen
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • James Moore: Complicated South gives us actions of Paula Deen, U.S. Supreme Court
  • He says Deen's apparent use of racist terms not surprising in region with racist roots
  • He says her generation used them behind closed doors with other whites and many still do
  • Moore: This duality in the way racism's vestiges are perceived echoed in Supreme Court rulings

Editor's note: James C. Moore, a Texan, is a business consultant and partner at Big Bend Strategies, a best-selling author and an on-air TV political analyst. He also writes at www.moorethink.com.

(CNN) -- Maybe the American South is more complicated than anyone realizes. We seem to exist down here in a kind of a moral and physical duality. The land gives up bountiful crops while it also grows vigorous weeds. There is no other valid explanation for the actions of either Paula Deen or the U.S. Supreme Court.

Deen, a televangelist of butter, let slip in a court deposition that she had used a degrading racial term to describe African-Americans. Imagine the surprise of almost no one in Dixie. Deen came of age in a country that was just beginning to institute the equality it had been bragging about for almost two centuries. If her childhood was like most Southern baby boomers, she was raised on the lexicon of discrimination, and probably used it.

James C. Moore
James C. Moore

Un-ringing such a bell is not simple. Passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 meant that people who had been taught that it was socially acceptable to use terms like the N-word in public suddenly found themselves struggling with restraint on their language. Unable to exorcise the term from their vocabulary fully, they took it into private quarters and used it among friends who had similar experiences and sentiments. It is grossly foolish, though, to dismiss Deen's stumble as a minor ineptitude with speech. In certain cultural circles in America, racism abides. And sometimes it simply forgets to close the door.

In tearful interview, Deen slams 'horrible lies'

Apologists racing to Deen's side are equally awkward in their articulations of defense. Author Anne Rice fretted about our "lynch mob" culture crucifying Deen, seemingly oblivious to the racial freight hauled around when using such a phrase to defend a privileged, Southern white person. Less than 100 years ago a 17-year-old black farmhand named Jesse Washington was lynched on the courthouse lawn in Waco, Texas, chained to a tree and burned alive. Parts of his body were sold as souvenirs to a cheering crowd of 10,000. He had admitted to a murder many historians doubt he committed.

How hard is it to understand that any ethnic person whose race has a history of being so victimized in a nation that espouses equality is likely to have a justified sensitivity to the bumblings of Deen, who had also expressed an offhanded interest in a "plantation-style" wedding dinner where the waiters were black males?

Eatocracy: Paula Deen and Southern food: Critics say credit is past due

Paula Deen: Kill me if you never sinned
Brand expert weighs in on Paula Deen
Should Paula Deen take a hiatus?

Deen might have argued that her attitudes were forever altered when a black man robbed a bank where she worked in 1986 and held a gun to her head. But sympathy is a tough emotion to conjure when reading her 2012 interview with The New York Times where she speaks of slavery as a familial relationship, not an injustice, and says, "(F)or that reason we didn't see ourselves as prejudiced." She also used the same forum to suggest that the freeing of her grandfather's 30 slaves was the cause of his suicide.

Consequently, it is disturbingly wrongheaded for comedian Bill Maher to argue that what she said is "just a word." Words are powerful things. Words have changed the world. Regardless, it is still a bit awkward labeling Deen a racist when she had Pat and Gina Neely on her program so frequently that the African-American barbecue chefs became stars of their own cooking show.

It is probably a gross oversimplification to suggest Deen didn't know any better because she lives in two parallel and contradictory environments. No such explanation is sufficient for the Supreme Court's ruling on the Voting Rights Act, either.

Deen's sons: She's no racist

The court's perceptions are as confounding as Deen's. A conservative majority voted 5-4 that Congress used "outdated facts" to force mostly Southern states to seek federal approval for voting rules changes that affect minorities. We can infer from the opinion's language that the problem of racial discrimination in the former slaveholding states has been mostly resolved. Can we all share a "hallelujah"?

Unlike Deen's mishap, this news will generate surprise among minorities, particularly those living in Texas and Arizona. The high court had already ruled that the Texas Legislature drew congressional district lines in a manner "designed" to discriminate against minority representation, which, not surprisingly, meant nothing to Gov. Rick Perry and his Republican, conservative legislature. They recently readopted the plan that had been ruled unconstitutional.

The high court also has a kind of Southern duality that puts it at odds with its own rulings. A week before the Voting Rights Act decision, the justices struck down an Arizona law that required people to show proof of citizenship when registering to vote in federal elections. A judicial body that contradicts itself one week after a progressive ruling is struggling as much with the law as it is with the reality of the culture where it is employed.

In the South, people understand how Paula Deen and judges can be as wrong as they are right. Unfortunately, there is considerably more at stake in this discussion than the buttery delights of a Southern cooking show. Regardless of how much we debate and legislate ourselves toward equality, we have not yet arrived. America seems immobilized by its history; we just can't stop staring at that tree on the courthouse lawn in Waco.

And we wonder why we still haven't got this right.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of James C. Moore.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 19, 2014 -- Updated 1710 GMT (0110 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT