As several states raced to find ways to disenfranchise minority voters in the days following the Supreme Court’s decision regarding the Voter Rights Act, the Paula Deen debacle put paid to the notion that some sort of sea change has occurred and racism is no longer an issue in the United States. Racism clearly is still an issue. TV celebrity chef Deen’s tribulations have entertainment value in today’s scandal-driven media, but her missteps belie deeper societal problems. Racism has moved from the blatant to the casual.
For example, in June the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released Housing Discrimination Against Racial and Ethnic Minorities 2012. When minority buyers and renters show up, “This study finds that minority homeseekers whose ethnicity is more readily identifiable experience more discrimination than those who may be mistaken for whites.” The study notes that discrimination has diminished, but it has not disappeared in communities across the nation. Researchers included more than 8,000 tests in a nationally representative sample of 28 metropolitan areas.
Folks like the doyen of Southern comfort food will smile in your face, but don’t turn your back. Sure, Paula Deen probably wouldn’t pick up a handy butcher knife and stab you. But there are subtler ways for casual racists to damage those who are not like them. Like the minority homeseekers in the HUD study, you simply will be shown fewer properties or have a harder time getting an appointment. The racism is still there—less obvious, not gone.
“I is what I is,” Deen lamented with faux folksiness in a tearful Today Show interview. Well, Miz Paula, you might as well have trotted out that old saw, you know, about how “some o’ mah best friends is black folk.” Uh huh. The real problem is, you is a racist. Personally, I would rather Deen had said something along the lines of “I am working on overcoming the racism in which I was raised, but sometimes stupidity drops out of my mouth before I can stop it, and I’m sorry.” That might, or might not, have been a more honest response. After all, Miz Paula also added, “I’m not changing.”
For sensationalism seekers, a real apology wouldn’t have been as entertaining as Deen’s weepy self-justifying meltdown on national television. But it would have gone further to rehabilitate Deen’s image. And a more responsible, less emotional approach also would have acknowledged that racism, though less ardent than in prior years, still exists—and still negatively affects every American regardless of race and ethnicity in some way. Sadly, deny or defend are more prevalent strategies among casual racists, as we are now likely to see in issues of voter discrimination as well, following the High Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act.