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.

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27 comments

  1. Akirah · June 25, 2013

    Sounds about right. Thanks for writing this. I will definitely share.

  2. Akirah · June 25, 2013

    Sounds right. Thanks for writing this. I will be sharing.

  3. Chris Schini · June 25, 2013

    Not to discount your perspective specifically, the African-American perspective generally, or the concept of systemic racism, but isn’t it possible that this is part of an even larger problem? I’d posit it is one of the privileged and the unprivileged, or the powerful and the powerless. I’m a white guy, from a middle class background, with a great education.

    But I’m not living in a paradise, where everything is offered to me. The Baby Boomers lied to us Millennials when they said we’d be fine if we just went to school and worked hard. That isn’t true for me and lots of others too.

    Additionally, I’d probably make broader claims about the current political environment and say that those without power have entire social structures stacked against them (economic, social, etc). I pay my taxes and get no breaks, but banks lose billions, need bailouts, and still get all the breaks.

    Basically, how do race and class interact to create the problems we are seeing?

    • Drew Hart · June 26, 2013

      Chris, while much of what you say is true in relation to the larger society, it has nothing to do with the specific issue at hand. If you read up, from any angle on the statistics, it is clear that black folk suffer disproportionately to white people in every category imaginable.

    • Sandra Miller · July 10, 2013

      Chris, the Baby Boomers didn’t lie to you, they simply didn’t take into account how different the world would be when you grew up, just as the Great War survivors who gave the same line to the Baby Boomers didn’t lie. We’ve all passed on what we believed at the time we passed it on.

      Certainly there are broader claims to be made about any number of structures and systems that keep our society going with its status quo for the privileged. However, you holding up that life isn’t perfect for you is as much a part of the rampant and hidden racism as Paula Deen’s remarks. I’ll wager that you don’t get followed in the grocery store while black or brown, stopped while being black in a white neighborhood, stopped and frisked for no reason, pulled over for driving while black or brown, and on, and on. You are privileged even if you aren’t living the dream.

  4. Marianne Modica · June 25, 2013

    Yes, people work hard to get where they are. But as I was woking hard, my whiteness was working for me. I refer you to my recent blog post, “A Tale of Two Schools” — http://risforrace.blogspot.com/2013/06/a-tale-of-two-schools.html. The schools I describe there are just a small example of how racism functions in ways that have nothing to do with celebrities like Paula Deen putting her foot in her mouth to reveal her racist upbringing. I agree with Drew — as long as people define racism as individual prejudice, structural inequity as we see here will remain hidden.

  5. This is deep. And helpful! Thanks Drew!

  6. Chris · June 25, 2013

    Thanks for this, Drew. Your post, and Christena’s recent one on privilege, are helping me to understand the larger systemic problem, and also the difference between racism (systemic reality) and prejudice (individual acts). I hope I am understanding correctly, and I am grateful for your work.

    • Drew Hart · June 25, 2013

      Thanks Chris, glad to be in dialogue with you as well. And yeah, you basically got the gist of what I was saying. Racism is a system, much like capitalism. However, I have no real problem if someone calls an individual act racism, so long as they see that act as just one small symptom of the larger systemic realities. I think the real challenge is for everyone to clarify how they are using any given term, and then making sure structural and societal angles are not being lost in our definitions. And yeah, Christena’s stuff is excellent!

  7. froginparis · June 25, 2013

    Again, beautifully worded. It is the exact issue my boys faced two weeks ago by a friend who has lived in the white homogeneous part of our town. This friend called the school they attend “ghetto.” When my boys defended their school-they were sent there for the purpose of real-world color and how to socially work with all types of people- the reply was, “Where there is black people, there is crime.”
    My boys called him racist. Oldest walked out of the room. Second boy was indisposed and had to listen to the small minded defense. “That’s not racist. That is fact.”
    It was a good thing second boy was stuck in the stall.
    Both allowed the fool his folly, cause you can’t argue with stupid.

    • Drew Hart · June 25, 2013

      Yup, I remember you mentioning this on twitter. So long as our society continues to practice racism systemically as it does, it will continue to produce narrow minded people like the one your boys had to encounter. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      • Fred · June 25, 2013

        I agree with much of what you offered. I do believe we can’t excuse bad behavior because of systematic racism. I have read and investigated enough to believe we live in a system built to outwardly suggest the “American Dream,” is possible for anyone, all the while knowing the system IS set up to insure most minorities haven’t a chance for real success. My fear is in what is happening today in America. The same system that has crippled the majority of minorities’ opportunities at higher education, freedom from a welfare system set up to hold them down and opened worlds of drugs and crime to them as “easy money” opportunities to prey upon each other, is now being expanded by our alleged “government in gridlock” to include most of the rest of America they consider the masses. A close look will let anyone see the only people who are struggling with America’s economic downturn are the ones least able to overcome it. Our Two Party system has become nothing more than the two sides of the same bad penny. They are working together….behind the scenes, moving forward the destruction of the middle class and ruination of everyone not in their wealthy realms.
        For what it’s worth, I’m a 56 year old White guy from the Birmingham, AL area.

      • Drew Hart · June 26, 2013

        Thanks for sharing Fred. I agree that much of America is struggling because of the practices of large companies that don’t pay fair wages to its workers, but I don’t think what is happening is anything like what is happening to the black community. When the white people complained about the double digits unemployment, many black folk had no sympathy because there has always been double digits unemployment in our community and because of the economic downturn, things got even worse. As they say, when white America catches a cold, black America catches the flu. Especially in economic national crisis, we see that african americans are at the bottom of the social ladder, always the last hired and the first fired. That said I don’t want to pretend like what you are talking about isn’t happening, cuz it is. The middle class is shrinking and more and more people will struggle to put food on the table if we continue this way. Thanks for commenting.

  8. Michelle Lotus · June 26, 2013

    Thank you for writing this wonderful piece. I won’t call you eloquent, though, because that is another racist and stereotypical catch phrase reserved for African-African speakers and writers.

    • Michelle Lotus · June 26, 2013

      Also, in response to a comment above, in general, people who have to specify their class as middle rarely are.

    • Drew Hart · June 26, 2013

      Michelle, I appreciate the support, thanks for stopping in and commenting.

  9. Angel Logue · June 26, 2013

    Completely agree with you. Another thought that came to mind while I read your post is how much we Americans tend to oversimplify complex issues (ally or axis of evil; winner or loser; my side or the wrong side…). Groups like Food Network and Smithfield Farms could use this as an opportunity to examine their hiring practices, take a hard look at what their marketing practices reveal about racist attitudes, made Paula the host of a show about Edna Lewis, or any other million positive things. But no…it’s easier to just fire Deen and hope people confuse that gesture with an actual commitment to racial justice.

    (I am so over this “scandal,” I vowed to not read another word involving Paula Deen, but I’m glad I read your piece and to know at least one other person in the world sees this pile-on for what it really is!)

    Blessings to you.

    • Drew Hart · June 26, 2013

      Yup, good thoughts. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Ben Lamb · June 26, 2013

    Drew, would you say the same thing about movies like 42, Red Tails, A Time to Kill, Remember the Titans, etc etc? Movies about overt racism just pads privileged society’s egos in thinking that racism has been eradicated since only a very small ostracized minority still think like the racism portrayed in the movies. I have just found your blog yesterday, so I apologize if you have written on this in the past.

    • Drew Hart · June 26, 2013

      Great question! While most movies are often a little more nuanced, in general, they often play into the problem. Usually racism, as defined by hollywood, is done by the overtly ignorant and prejudiced person whom you are supposed to dislike rather than identify with. Rarely do they force us to consider the structural forces at work that racialize our societies thoroughly, beyond hate speech and disliking another individual for their skin pigmentation. Thanks for the question.

  11. Pingback: Reconciliation Replay (June 27, 2013)
  12. Anthony · June 29, 2013

    Great article, exactly what needs to be said about systematic racism… I hope some people will truly look at themselves and see that change starts within… Hotp

  13. mike joyce · June 29, 2013

    Thanks for truly pointing out the ongoing 21st century issue here. I’ve been around/worked for many “Paula Deens” in my 62-year life. Her quote really says much: “I is who I is and I’m not going to change.”

  14. Randy Howell · June 29, 2013

    I agree with some of your analogy but you still seem to think as do most all blacks that there is some sort of grand conspiracy to keep the black man down. I disagree with your take on the racial profiling. I feel that if someone is acting suspicious be it black or white that you have a right to question theirs motives. It is to easy to use the race excuse for your problems. Please goggle black on white crimes and see what the facts say. Also, the media will try and highlight a racial issue because it sells more papers. What about the ghetto excuse? for many years the blacks have said that the ghetto was ripe with crime,drugs etc. and they could not stand it. Well, as far as I knew, the affordable housing was set in place for the African American race so they could get a cheaper rent and help them out in life. The white people did not bring the crime, prostitution and drugs into the community did they? also, my first question still stands. How many black people that are questioning Mrs. Deens race views ever said the N word or for that matter have you ever said it. You know as well as everyone else that the African American comics and rappers say it each and everyday but are not held accountable for it as well as saying cracker or whitey so how can that be justified. Just as Bill Cosby said, quit making excuses for yourself and be a man.

  15. envyskins · July 16, 2013

    In a nut shell. Great Post.

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