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Why The Paula Deen Controversy is About Much More Than Words

I live in Savannah, which is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and to which I willingly and gratefully moved when my last child left the nest.

I live in Savannah, where the lines for Paula Deen’s restaurant, Lady and Sons, stretch around the block most days, and the parking lot at her brother’s restaurant over the bridge on Whitemarsh Island, Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House, is perpetually overflowing. That may change with all the negative publicity but Paula Deen’s “troubles” are about far more than her use of an ugly word several years ago. They speak to the larger and more unsettling issue of inequality in the U.S., an issue which is far more difficult to discuss than whether a famous white woman should be denounced for her language.

I technically live in the city of Savannah but really in the county of Chatham. The county has a population of about 276,000 people: almost 55 percent white and 40 percent black. In Savannah proper, population around 142,000, the breakdown by race is 55 percent black and 38 percent white. According to studies, fifty years after the end of the war, 89 percent of black people still lived in the South, but a huge wave of migration between 1915 and 1920 saw perhaps a million black men and women migrate north. Between the years of 1941 and 1970 five million more African Americans left the South. Yet many Southern cities, including Richmond, New Orleans, Baltimore and Savannah still contain a majority black population. And the poverty rate in those cities is huge, on average 25 percent. no doubt badly affected by the recent recession. But in a city like Chicago, which has a majority white population, poverty among blacks there is at 32 percent. Dallas’ black population has a 30 percent poverty rate. It is clear that poverty and opportunity are the wider issues, which have not begun to be dealt with by the presidency of Barack Obama, whose election was initially hailed as a blow for racism, but which has, in so many ways, further split our country in two.

I was born and raised in the South and save for 13 years in other states and countries I have lived in three Southern states: Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia for my 57 years. I witnessed firsthand integration when, in 1964 my small town’s school admitted its first black student. In 1972, just two years after college football was fully integrated, a good friend, a young black man, rreceived a football scholarship to Georgia Tech. It wasn’t until many years later, after seeing a documentary on the integration of college football that I realized how big a deal that was.

Integration was achieved seamlessly in my town, especially compared to the stories I read about big city busing and riots, but the local country club still did not allow black members. There were also nearby country clubs which did not accept Jews, and as a young Jewish Southerner I felt my share of keen and targeted anti-Semitism; in fact, upon discussing this fairly recently with black friends from my youth, I found that they felt far more comfortable in their skins than I did. In college, in New England, a young black woman in an economics of the South seminar, vehemently defended her home state of North Carolina. She said she would much rather live in the South because there, at the least, racism was out in the open, whereas in the North it was far more insidious. This was in 1975. I was moved by her speech because I sensed the same. It seemed easier to deal with prejudice out in the open as opposed to pretending it did not exist. And while my life in the South has always been a mixed bag, I am by birth a Southerner and I have now chosen to live in one of the deepest parts of it, Savannah, Georgia.

But even in my less than two years here I know full well that the current “conversation” about Paula Deen, such as it is, is misguided in its obsession with her use of the “n” word, as it is politely called. Deen’s supporters laud her honesty in admitting she used that word in her past; her detractors wonder what century she lives in, because Deen is a throwback to a time when “polite” racism was the norm. When it was standard to separate one’s self from “others,” while, at the same time, sharing a street, a school, a table with them. The South, which has, by many Northerners been as dismissed as Deen, is seen as a racial hotbed and therefore her actions are excused. But none of the issues around Deen are about the South or even about the “n” word: they are about privilege, power, justice, and decency. Those issues strike all across America.

And the notions of privilege, power, justice and decency have just been struck a body blow by two recent Supreme Court decisions that disarm the voting rights act and make it far more difficult for employees to sue for racial harassment.

The lawsuit against Deen, which has supposedly sparked this entire controversy, and the deposition, only part of which has made the news, speak far more to the larger issues of how we treat each other in general. One can read the complaint in its entirety here, and it is eye-opening and mind-boggling. Deen and her brother are hugely successful restaurateurs but run businesses which would have made any right-thinking person run quickly away. Yet, like many areas of the country, unemployment is high in Savannah, higher now since the recession, and good jobs are hard to find. Still the levels of employee harassment hark back to the old Anita Hill days and illustrate, far better than anything I can think of, just how difficult it is to stand up for one’s self as an employee. The power is all in the hands of the boss. And people who make waves get ruined. In the Supreme Court’s decision to make it more difficult for employees to sue for harassment one has to see the supreme irony in Lisa Jackson’s lawsuit. But if it has hastened the ruin of Deen, Deen began her own descent into caricature when she admitted she had diabetes and had had the disease for years, even as she hawked her high fat and high sugar recipes to a seemingly unsuspecting public and then began another life as a shill for a diabetes medication. Yet Jackson is the one who is being vilified.

I get my hair cut at the same salon her son Bobby uses. I have a dear friend who is a friend of Paula’s and has vigorously defended her. Our local paper, the Savannah Morning News, has put the issue of Paula on its front page, above the fold. More than any other person, save for John Berendt and his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (which is featured in every tourist and book shop around) Deen has brought visitors to Savannah. Officials are treading lightly. She is a celebrity. In Savannah, perhaps our largest. Yesterday people stood in protest outside of Lady and Sons.

An interesting choice of name for the restaurant: Paula Deen does indeed see herself as a lady but listen to this interview from a year ago and then decide. Deen is a classicist, a power broker drunk on her own success, a woman who, with her family, thought that their businesses could be run by their own peculiar rules, which included every single aspect of a hostile workplace. That is fully clear in the complete complaint..

The controversy surrounding Deen is not just about race or an ugly word. It is about who we really are as Americans. And what this brouhaha shows is that we are not even close to being an inclusive society, despite having a black president, despite the inroads the women’s movement has made, despite our sudden willingness to deal with immigration reform. Each day as many laws are being passed to defeat the progress we have made as to perpetuate it. There have been more than 300 laws passed which restricting women’s power over their bodies this year alone. But those in power, like Deen, hold themselves above the fray and feel comfortable making the rules for the rest of us.

Having been subjected to no small measure of prejudice for much of my life, I never used the ugly word that is part of the controversy surrounding Deen. That does not mean I don’t have my own biases which I struggle against and it doesn’t mean I haven’t stepped on landmines myself. Paula Deen, however, did not step on a land mine: she and her brother created one and armed it themselves and should not be surprised it went off and blew them up. Drunk with power and her world-wide celebrity, Deen grew from a humble sandwich peddler to a juggernaut who believed she was untouchable, despite her endorsement of Smithfield Hams (which has now dropped Deen as a spokeswoman) being marred by the workers who protested conditions at the plant, despite her diabetes revelation, despite myriad rumors which have swirled around her here in Savannah.

People ate and will most likely continue to eat, at Lady and Sons and Uncle Bubba’s as long as they remain open: not for the food but for the cachet. She will still have her loyal supporters, many of whom have taken to the internet to speak in language even uglier than that which Deen used. But what those comments don’t seem to take into account is the larger issues the lawsuit raises, mainly, I suspect, because most people take a snippet of information and run with it, which seems to be de rigueur in commentary these days. Deen parlayed a simple idea into huge success through, admittedly, hard work and chutzpah. But the mighty fall hard. And if what happened to her helps us talk more openly about race and class and privilege and a fair workplace, then her fallen star will be to the good.

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