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.

Published by Drew G. I. Hart, PhD

Drew G. I. Hart is a theology professor in the Biblical & Religious Studies department at Messiah College with ten years of pastoral experience. Hart majored in Biblical Studies at Messiah College as an undergraduate student, he attained his M.Div. with an urban concentration from Missio Seminary in Philadelphia, and he received his Ph.D. in theology and ethics from Lutheran Theological Seminary-Philadelphia. Drew was born and raised in Norristown, Pa and has lived extensively in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, PA as well. Dr. Hart’s dissertation research explored how Christian discipleship, as framed by Black theologies and contemporary Anabaptist theologies, gesture the Church towards untangling the forces of white supremacy and the inertia of western Christendom which have plagued its witness in society for too long. As two traditions that emerged from the underside of violent and oppressive western Christian societies, he found Black theology and Anabaptism each repeatedly turning to the particularity of Jesus in the gospel narratives. From that arises an ethic of solidarity with the oppressed and pursuing liberation in Black theology and an ethic of radical peacemaking and ecclesial nonconformity in the Anabaptist tradition. Each challenge the violent and oppressive logics of mainstream western Christianity and salvage the call to follow the way of Christ. Together in dialogue they deepen our analysis of the churches failures and the need for Jesus-shaped repentance. His work beyond teaching and writing has included pastoring in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, working for an inner-city afterschool program for black and brown middle school boys, delivering lectures and leading anti-racism workshops, collaborating with local faith-based organizers and activists in his city, and doing a broad range of public theology. He is also a co-leader for a local Harrisburg faith-based relational network called FREE Together which has collaborated with POWER Interfaith, MILPA, the Shut Down Berks Detention Center movement, and a little with the Poor People’s Campaign. Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew Hart, has received great reviews by Publisher’s Weekly and Englewood Review of Books. Endorsing this resource, Shane Claiborne said, “This book is a gift from the heart of one of the sharpest young theologians in the United States. Hold it carefully, and allow it to transform you--and our blood-stained streets.” As a text, Trouble I’ve Seen utilizes personal and everyday stories, Jesus-shaped theological ethics, and anti-racism frameworks to transform the church’s understanding and social witness. Trouble I’ve Seen focuses on white supremacy as an overarching framework for understanding racism, with careful attention to its systemic and socializing dimensions. However, unlike sociology textbooks on the subject Dr. Hart also considers the subversive vocation of Jesus and the nonviolent yet revolutionary implications his life ought to have for his followers today. His newest book project is entitled Who Will Be a Witness?: Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance and will be published September 1, 2020. Who Will Be A Witness? invites the church to liberate its centuries long captivity to supremacist practices, and to expand its restricted political imagination in view of Jesus’ messianic reign. The book guides disciples of Jesus into joining God’s delivering presence through scriptural reasoning, historical reflection, practical theology for congregational life, social change theory, and the Christian call to love our neighbor. It is written for congregations, leaders, and students that understand that pursuing God’s justice goes way beyond waiting around for electoral seasons to come around. It is about the ongoing vocation of the Church right now, at the grassroots level, seeking after the wellbeing of their neighbors through faithful, strategic, and concrete action. Drew recently joined the Inverse Podcast team serving as a cohost along with Australian peace activist Jarrod Mckenna. Together they interview interesting people and explore how scripture can turn our ethical imagination and the violent and unjust systems of our world upside-down, which contrasts with interpreting the Bible as a tool for the status quo. Dr. Drew Hart was the recipient of bcmPEACE’s 2017 Peacemaker Award, a 2019 W.E.B. Dubois Award from a Disciples of Christ congregation, and in October 2019, Dr. Hart was chosen as Elizabethtown College’s 2019 Peace Fellow. Each award recognized him for his local and national justice work and public theology. You can find Drew Hart on Twitter and Facebook, or you can catch him as he travels and speaks regularly across the country to colleges, conferences, and churches. Drew and Renee, and their three boys (Micah, Dietrich, and Vincent) live in Harrisburg, PA and attend Harrisburg First Church of the Brethren.

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

  1. 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?

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. 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!

  4. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

      2. 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.

  5. 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.

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

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    1. 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.

  8. 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

  9. 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.”

  10. 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.

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