The Guileless 'Accidental Racism' of Paula Deen

Americans have condemned her and shamed her. But, looking at our history, what do we we expect?

Paula Deen was born in Southwest Georgia, a portion of our country known for its rabid resistance to the civil rights advancements of the mid-20th century. It was in Southwest Georgia that Martin Luther King joined the Albany Movement. It was in Southwest Georgia that Shirley and Charles Sherrod fought nonviolently for the voting rights that were theirs by law. It was in Southwest Georgia that Shirley Sherrod's cousin, Bobby Hall, was lynched. It was in Southwest Georgia that Shirley Sherrod's father was shot down by a white man. This man was never punished.

A few months ago I was interviewing a gentleman who'd migrated up from the South in the 1930s. When I asked him why he'd left, he said he was looking for "protection of the law." It is crucial that we remember that the South, for black people, was not just the home of "Colored Only" water-fountains, but was a kind of perpetual anarchic terrorist state. There was no law.

For some reason we like to think that members of ruling class raised in such environs remain unaffected, that the brutality which the children witness does not, somehow, work on their morality, their character and bearing. Our forefathers knew better:

The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient.

The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.

I confess myself refreshed to hear Paula Deen respond "Yes, of course," when asked if she used the word "nigger." We have conditioned ourselves with a kind of magic to believe that racism is a matter of kindness and prohibitive vocabulary -- as though a hatred of women can be reduced the use of the word "bitch." But what does a country which tolerates the terrorism of Southwest, Georgia expect? What does a country whose left wing's greatest policy achievement was made possible by an embrace of white supremacy really believe will happen to children raised in such times? What do we expect in a country where many find it entirely appropriate to wear the battle-flag of the republic of slavery?

Perhaps it expects that they will be savvy enough to not propose sambo burgers or plantation themed weddings. But this is an embarrassment at airs, not the actual truth. When you watch the video above, note the people cheering and laughing. For those without video, here is what was said:

Deen, talking at an event months before losing her job for using the "N-word," recounted how her great-grandfather was driven to suicide after his 30 slaves were set free.

"Between the death of his son and losing all the workers, he went out into his barn and shot himself because he couldn't deal with those kind of changes," Deen said at a New York Times event. Deen, owner of a restaurant empire, asserted the owner-slave relationship was more kinship than cruelty.

"Back then, black folk were such an integral part of our lives," said Deen. "They were like our family, and for that reason we didn't see ourselves as prejudiced."

She also called up an employee to join her onstage, noting that Hollis Johnson was "as black as this board" -- pointing to the dark backdrop behind her. "We can't see you standing in front of that dark board!" Deen quipped, drawing laughter from the audience.

At the same event, Deen at one point described race relations in the South as "pretty good." "We're all prejudiced against one thing or another," she added. "I think black people feel the same prejudice that white people feel."

Here is everything from Civil War hokum to black friend apologia to blatant racism. And people at a New York Times event are laughing along with it.

This morning, I showed this video to my wife. My wife is dark-skinned. My wife is from Chicago by way of Covington, Tennessee. The remark sent her right back to childhood. I suspect that the laughter in the crowd was a mix of discomfort, shock and ignorance. The ignorance is willful. We know what we want to know, and forget what discomfits us.

There is a secret at the core of our nation. And those who dare expose it must be condemned, must be shamed, must be driven from polite society. But the truth stalks us like bad credit. Paula Deen knows who you were last summer. And the summer before that.

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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