Skip to main content

Paula Deen's words echo South's racist past

By James C. Moore, Special to CNN
updated 6:38 PM EDT, Wed June 26, 2013
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
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT