Why Highlighting Paula Deen’s Offensive Words Are Part of the 21st Century’s Sophisticated Racial System

Yup, you didn’t misread me at all, pointing to Paula Deen’s racially offensive words is nothing spectacular or courageous, but rather it is the expected response within America’s 21st century context. I am not going to debate, argue, or defend Paula Deen, that would be absurd. I am not even suggesting that we consider her comments and perspectives something other than racist, because that is exactly what they are. All I am suggesting is that the outrage and scapegoating of Paula Deen is a sophisticated cultural reflux of a highly racialized society that doesn’t want to own up to how racism works systemically.

The greatest threat to black life and existence, is not Paula Deen calling someone a Nigger! Rather, it is the racial domination and the embedded systems in place in our country that offer some citizens of the U.S. access to wealth, comfort, security, and safety at the expense of the welfare of others. It is the segregated and unequal public school systems, the war on young black men (known as the War on Drugs), mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex, the lack of adequate housing and little to no access to affordable jobs. It is the practice of white hegemony and the overwhelming stats pointing to white people receiving and giving preferential treatment for employment regardless of qualifications (while many who have benefited from such a job from their all white networks simultaneously complain about affirmative action’s unfairness). I am sorry, but it is not Paula Deen’s pitiful ideology that is most harmful, it is the entire society that is sick and that ignores the daily welfare of people who are of African descent. In fact, Paula Deen can only come to be and think as she does within a society like ours, that is so oppressively racialized.

So, when we point the finger at Paula Deen, we misdirect all of our attention to one small isolated symptom of a much bigger problem. I would like to redirect the focus back to an entire dominant culture that has benefited from an economy built on free slave labor and that continues to apathetically oppress the descendants of those slaves. The magic of it all, is that the racial oppression in the 21st century has become so sophisticated, that no one feels like their hands are dirty. One out of three African Americans will go to prison at some point in their lives because they have been deemed suspicious. Young black and brown kids cannot walk around in NYC without being stopped and frisked, even though the stats have shown that it is mostly innocent people that are being harassed and humiliated over and over again.

But, so long as the dominant culture is fine and have not dirtied their hands directly, they can claim innocence while pointing the finger at blatant ideological racist and offensive comments from the Paula Deens of the world. The noise surrounding these events compared to the silence around the things that are daily destroying African American communities by the masses is deafening. Who cares about holding Paula Deen responsible if we refuse to do anything about the sophisticated racial oppression that produces people like her a hundredfold everyday?  When the dominant culture makes an example of Paula Deen, it both turns her into a scapegoat and it also creatively claims its own innocence, because it limits the definition of racism to individual acts. If you want to hold her accountable, then let us also hold the entire sophisticated system of oppression accountable for its calculated violence against black life.

Why do you call me Lord?: Praxis and Foundations

 

In America, it is common to hear people comment on how hard it must be to be a Christian overseas where persecution is rampant. Unfortunately, in response many begin cheering patriotically because of our so called American rights and our supposed ‘freedom’ to gather in Jesus’ name. While we could explore the faulty label and deployment of the word freedom in relation to American life we will forsake that explicit task for today. But there is something to say about reflecting on the nature and character of people’s faith in places where there is an inherent cost in claiming the name of Jesus and the absence of such opposition here in America. To be considered a Christian in many places demands deep conviction because their decision comes with a high cost or risk in their society. On the other hand, here in America, if someone pursued the most powerful position in the American empire (the Presidency), it is still strategically wise to identify as Christian if one desires to have an ‘effective’ campaign. What I am pointing to is the manner in which Christian rhetoric and association in America provides social, political, and economic space (for some) to move, gain prestige, obtain resources, and be considered a good and respectable citizen within American boundaries. Some may read this as positive but here it is not diagnosed as so. Instead, the end result is an expression of Christianity in which our adherence is cheap, easy, and comfortable; a life contrary to a life of following Jesus, as defined by Christ himself (Luke 9:23). 

Popular Christian expression and sentiment here on our part of the globe are found deficient, leaving many in a terrible position because they are being bamboozled and hoodwinked in their own identification before God. On one hand we have many who call Jesus Lord within the United States but on the other hand it is hard to find anyone who practices what Jesus taught or are willing to live alternatively in the world with Jesus as their foundation. Loving one’s enemies, not hoarding possessions, confronting evil, lending without expecting anything in return, making solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed, sharing the good news of God’s alternative Kingdom with the poor, doing justice, being merciful, and confronting empire and evil forces to the point of laying down one’s life are not compatible with American life or reasoning. Yet the absence of the markers of a Christian life has not even slightly worried  or bothered the self confidence  of self proclaimed Christians in America.

While Christianity in America is on a decline, it certainly has not gotten to the point where Christians are disenfranchised for their faithfulness to Christ (despite popular sentiment from many American evangelicals who complain about Christian victimhood from contexts of comfort, wealth, safety, and security). What a miserable condition we find ourselves in. We all believe that we are Christians and are followers of Christ and have been conditioned by our Christian leaders to believe that everything is fine and that there is nothing to worry about. At the same time, there is no fruit of discipleship (defined by the life of Christ rather than American standards of what is expected and reasonable for our 21st Century American lifestyles). We think that somehow the call to proclaim Jesus as Lord meant that we just had to verbalize the words but didn’t have to truly reorient our lives thoroughly around the reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his inbreaking Kingdom. This misunderstanding was something Jesus was fully aware of, warning his followers that true surrendering to Jesus’ Lordship demanded practicing what Jesus taught and emulated as the foundation of our lives. Here is Jesus’ teaching from Luke 6:46-49:

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do what I tell you? “Everyone who comes to me and listens to my words and puts them into practice – I will show you what he is like: He is like a manbuilding a house, who dug down deep, and laid the foundation on bedrock. When a flood came, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the person who hears and does not put my words into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against that house, it collapsed immediately, and was utterly destroyed!”[1]

            It’s time to move beyond empty words and cheap adherence. May we make Jesus’ life and teachings the foundations of our lives taking them seriously and putting them into practice as we yield to Christ thoroughly in our own life. When we step back and revisit where it is hard to be Christian, it is recognized that the domestication of Christianity in America provides a near impossible context to follow Jesus because we are completely enslaved to our way of life and logic. Thankfully, all things are possible with God.


[1] Biblical Studies Press., NET Bible: New English Translation., 1st Beta ed. ([Spokane  Wash.]: Biblical Studies Press, 2001).