Racism in the Wake of Paula Deen and Trayvon Martin’s Murder

19 Jul
We Have a Long Way to Go.

We Have a Long Way to Go.

Recent events dominating the news have coalesced to demonstrate how far our country has to go around the issue of race. This is a difficult and complex piece to write and a difficult time for our country, as the dominant culture — white, hetero, male — reacts to these events in yet another wave of racist behavior.  United States history never starts from a place of innocence, and our entrenched history of marginalization and racism is quite long.

When the story first hit about Paula Deen, I had dozens of readers emailing me to make her Bigot of the Week. I was reluctant to do so and even more reluctant to call her a racist without more facts. As a social worker, I understand that someone can practice racist behavior without being fundamentally racist. Applying that label is very powerful and gives the person no place to go, no way to address the negative behavior.

I have never been a very big fan of Paula Deen, so seeming to defend her — especially given the nature of the charges —  was somewhat painful for me. We were dealing with partial information, taken from an adversarial process as she responded to an attorney representing a woman suing her companies, mostly deriving from the actions of her brother. I felt I needed to take the time to let more context emerge before passing judgment, something our media are incapable of doing anymore.

Sadly, her behavior in conjunction with her silence certainly do qualify her behavior as racist and sexist behavior. She has admitted to her own shortcomings and seems remorseful, but does not seem to want to do any type of repair work. Far more disturbing is the fact that as the person in charge, she did nothing to put her brother’s horrible behavior in check. By turning away, she became complicit and thus colluded with his behavior.

While I’m glad the media picked up on the racism of Deen and her brother, they certainly did not do justice to the misogyny.  After spending two weeks gathering information, I was not only sad to learn of the awful racist behavior on behalf of this family, but why was no one talking about the issue of women, sexual harassment. and power?

To make the mar even larger on our country’s history, the George Zimmerman verdict came in last Saturday declaring Zimmerman innocent and declaring to the United States that it is still not safe to be a black man. This chilling decision, that lethal violence was justified because a scared kid reacted badly to being hunted by a man with a gun, has given racist America permission to demonstrate its ugliness.

Pat Robertson said we all need to “chill out” because Martin was a “fully formed African-American male” and “justice was served.” Sadly, I’m not sure what century Robertson is living in currently. Rush Limbaugh boldly declares that he’ll be using the word “nigga” because it’s a term of affection in the African American community so it isn’t racist–I’m sorry Rush, but you DON’T get to decided what people of color are allowed to find racist!  Dozens of pundits blame Martin for his own death because he made the mistake of wearing a hoodie — something millions of kids do every day without being hunted and shot.

As our history shows, our laws and policies were created to justify racist behavior and to ensure that white people were treated better and with different rules.  This was reaffirmed with the United States Supreme Court decision that struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act. When laws and people in power, such as the Supreme Court normalize racist behavior, it paves the way for individuals to exercise their racist views. When President Obama was elected, the bigots felt threatened and reacted with coded language and horrific behavior. The Deen case shows just how horrifically people still use their power in racist, misogynistic ways. Tragically, the Zimmerman verdict has given the forces of hate permission to bellow their bigotry loudly with a hideous, we-told-you-so attitude.

A recent study published in The Root disclosed that over a 1/3  of white Americans believe African Americans are racist. Nothing demonstrates more clearly how fundamentally our nation misunderstands — or worse, willfully ignores — how power, privilege, and multi-generations of oppression and marginalization have created our modern dynamic. There is much work to be done. Those of us who believe in equity and fairness must use this tense, powerful moment in the American conversation to demand positive action towards racial equity and equity for all those that are marginalized.


24 Responses to “Racism in the Wake of Paula Deen and Trayvon Martin’s Murder”

  1. Central Oregon Coast NOW July 19, 2013 at 7:19 am #

    Reblogged this on Central Oregon Coast NOW.

  2. Jennifer Carey July 19, 2013 at 7:46 am #

    Thank you Michael for writing this. There have been several things I have been pondering since the sentence came down. One thing that struck me, and really made me depressed, was that I wasn’t at all surprised – it was the verdict I expected. That hurt my heart. That this was what I expected to come down.
    Hearing people talk about Trayvon as though he ‘should have done x, y, or z’ and ignoring the fact that the man that followed and shot this child (and he was a child) was a grown man, armed, and knew the police were on the way before confronting a teenage boy. It strikes me of the same comments people make about women who have been assaulted – why were you walking there, why were you wearing that, why did/didn’t you do this or that?
    I hope that America can look at this and realize how far we have to go as a country and as individuals. While I believe I am very conscious and aware of social issues, I realize that I still need to grow and become more aware of the world. My ethnicity and status allows me a certain amount of sheltered privilege.
    Anyway, I’m not sure where I am going with this, so I will end it here. On a sad note.

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt July 19, 2013 at 7:55 am #

      Jennifer, what a powerful and insightful comment here! Yes, your analogy between how we treat women who have been assaulted and how we now treat the late Trayvon Martin are the same. If you are a targeted person, we put the onus on that person rather than questioning the system. I just want to hug and kiss you for the amazing insight you shared: “My ethnicity and status allows me a certain amount of sheltered privilege.”

  3. dykewriter July 19, 2013 at 9:11 am #

    the problem is when bullies act like they are the victim

    the culture of comparative victimhood is part of the problem

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt July 19, 2013 at 11:31 am #

      Nina, you certainly nailed it here with your comment.

      • dykewriter July 19, 2013 at 11:55 am #

        well… I am agoraphobic for a reason

        I didn;t chose the digital life

        the digital life chose me

      • dykewriter July 19, 2013 at 11:56 am #

        and I got tired of being compared to rape victims and founding lacking as a victim

      • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt July 19, 2013 at 12:02 pm #

        Let us hope we can all engage in more meaningful conversations around racial and gender equity–counter narratives that challenge the dominant culture.

      • dykewriter July 19, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

        dominant in the USA

        it’s not as zero sum everywhere else in the western world

        the public conversations do change

        when you have personal soverignty

        freedom and vigilance

        my own situation is so at odds with the Canadian average

        i get twisted in the back and forth


        I just drop out again and remember my place is the curb now.

  4. Social Work Helper (@swhelpercom) July 19, 2013 at 9:36 am #

    Hi Michael,

    I had been contemplating writing an article all the issues you touch on, and there is so much that I wanted to say. However, you have captured everything I was thinking and feeling. I don’t think that I could have said it better. Thank you for such a thoughtful, but on point article. Instead of writing on all these topics, I will just share yours.

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt July 19, 2013 at 11:33 am #

      Dear Deona, You are so lovely! I suspect you could have written a far better article than I did here. Let us hope it will stimulate serious and respectful conversations needed around race and racial equity. Warm regards, Michael

  5. penguinlad July 19, 2013 at 10:28 am #

    Thanks for an insightful analysis, as always. So much for the myth of the “post-racial” America, a farcical concept when proposed in 2008 and an agonizing, marginalizing lie five years later.

    A side observation about power. Paula Deen lost her TV shows and some sponsorship deals even before the full picture was clear. Rush and Robertson still have their media platforms after being much more publicly and aggressively racist. I’m not defending Deen in any way, but this is far too reminiscent of Martha Stewart. What’s good for the gander is clearly pushy overreaching by the goose…

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt July 19, 2013 at 11:36 am #

      Dear Penginlad, thank you for your comments here. Thank you for sharing the information around who lost their jobs and who remains in power! Clearly we still have a long way to go around gender equity as well as racial equity. The good old boy white hetero network remains intact.

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt July 19, 2013 at 5:50 pm #

      Nina, thank you for the link. Definitely worth reading. I guess I feel that empathy, addressed in the article, is something akin to karma. Obviously, the article you link to does a great job of addressing the benefits of empathy and does not boil it down to just karma.

  6. madeline knox July 19, 2013 at 11:03 pm #

    Many people are arguing that this is not a “race issue”. I say to those people if it is not a race issue than you should be just as scared of George Zimmerman because he is just killing kids who don’t “look right”. But of course these people don’t fear for the safety of their children because they know it is about race. The argument that we are post racial is absurd. If that were the case then one wouldn’t use racial qualifiers when telling a story. For example: The Asian checkout clerk or my black friend, and at the same time when speaking about a white person not qualify nouns at all. As if to suggest that being white is normal and being of a different color is strange or should have an effect on the way the listener should feel about the story.
    I think the scariest racists are not the KKK or Louis Farrakhan but the people who don’t know they are racist and are not willing to accept that their behavior is offensive when you tell them it is so. We can all be prejudice, I believe it is in our nature to make snap judgments about people based on their outside appearance, Fine. I think the problem lies with the person who is prejudging by not letting the person being judged change your opinion. Let’s say you think I am stupid because I am black, and these assumptions are based on media, and a few encounters with black people you have had, first thing that comes into question is my intelligence. Fine, it happens, I make judgments too. But if you are picking
    Oppression happens when you feel like the perceived difference entitles you to make decisions on who has upward mobility and not. Being that Mostly white men are at the top of most industries the prejudices they have have an effect on everyone. If you decide that white people are inherently smarter and rather than figuring out if this prejudice is rooted in truth or a lie you make all of you business decision based on this perceived fact then inevitably more white people will be at the top. Same with black dominated areas of business as well white men at the top have decided that black men are better at football and basketball it is an accepted “fact” in our society but very few teams are owned by black men. The most puzzling question I have for people who deny the fact that we live in a systematically racist country is: if we are post racial and white people do not have certain privileges, then why are black people the most incarcerated group, the most impoverished group, the most illiterate group, the most unhealthy, and the least educated group in America? Is it because we are naturally bad at doing business, have a lower capacity for learning, and are violent drug addicts? I think this idea is absurd but many people believe it to be true by default because they are not willing to accept that fact that one group has an advantage over all others. I think socially things are getting better but it usually gets crazy first. I think we saw this in the 2012 election most people are not extremists, we want moderate leaning left solutions that do not try to use religion to control our personal lives!

    I heard Bill O’Reilly tell Tavis Smiley that the biggest problem in America isn’t racism but it is black on black crime. Of course this is a problem. I would argue that crime in the black community stems from systematic racism and not just the “violent nature of black people”. I have a few thoughts but I have gone on long enough so here is just one: Many people in america feel that to get ahead one must oppress or alienate another group. this is why I fell that many black people have not spoken up for or spoken against gay rights. Although some may argue religion, many people throw out religion when it is convenient. I have always felt passionate about gay rights since I was 12 years old in your class, and here is the reason I believe we should all be treated equally under the law INCLUDING state law, Most importantly and where I fell that many other black people have forgotten about is that if one groups rights can be called into question, challenged and/or denied, how long will it before mine are? If some people are more American than others than whose to say what the order is.Since black people usually fall at the bottom of the list I think we ought to make as many allies as possible! so whether in the black community it is black women or gay men someone ends up being a victim. but all oppressed groups should stand together in solidarity and I feel like we are getting there slowly but surely.

    *** Sorry for any spelling and grammatical errors I was trying to get all of my thoughts out.

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt July 20, 2013 at 6:55 am #

      Maddie, I always love it when you comment on the blog! You are absolutely brilliant and beautiful. I knew over a decade ago that you were destined for greatness! I love how you really understand the issues of the intersections of oppression and how we must stand in solidarity together. On a different note, when are you coming to visit?

  7. webwordwarrior July 20, 2013 at 8:02 am #

    A brilliant post, Michael. I have read many things about Paula Deen, most of them pathetic and sensationalist. I have read many more about Trayvon Martin, from the cursory to the insightful. Your skillful blending of the two is the most though-provoking, heartfelt, and contextual piece I have seen on the issue of race in a very long time. The demagogues and bloviators will say what they will, but I cannot help but feel that insights like this will help change hearts and minds for the better.

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt July 20, 2013 at 8:36 am #

      Thank you for your kind comments here. Yes, my intent is to create a meaningful dialogue about race and racial equity. I hope will continue to work hard to create a space where people can make mistakes but can also be held accountable for their behavior.

  8. Bianca Chinn July 22, 2013 at 10:01 am #

    Thank you for your blog. I appreciate you discussing the misogyny dynamic with Paula Deen, and her brother. I read the lawsuit filed and the allegations outline a hostile work environment, which isn’t saying a racial epithet once (as some Deen defenders state is simply a mistake on Deen’s behalf). The lawsuit gives in detail several examples in which Deen, her brother, and upper tier management continually ignore concerns of staff, create a hostile work environment via sexism and racism and violating employee rights. As far as the sponsorships dropping Deen, that is another area which I am curious about…Capitalism and the racism that exists in the U.S. lead me to suspect that sponsors dropped her not so much because they strongly believe in human rights, rather than the profit loss of staying associated with Deen. While I am glad they did drop their contracts, I do hope the reason was not simply for money.
    Also- Trayvon Martin. Thank you for discussing the hypocrisy of pundits and bringing forth the inequity of U.S. law in peoples’ rights. I have spent some time away from reading news after the verdict, my heart is hurting. I am also thinking of what I can do from my place of privilege to help myself and our community in this.

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt July 22, 2013 at 1:21 pm #

      Thank you for commenting here! Yes, my heart is still aching as well. I am just grateful that I am in the company of people like you that are working so hard to make the world a better place and working towards racial and gender equity.

  9. Changing My Health and Wellness July 25, 2013 at 9:48 am #

    Very well stated on all accounts, including the reticence of the press to do background work before broadcasting misleading “facts.” I really like the critical thought this evokes and may use it as a case study, crediting you of course!

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt July 25, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

      Thank you for your comments here. I’m also want to invite everyone to suggest ideas how we can hold people accountable for racist behavior and keep a conversation about racial and gender equity going. Yes, if you should use this as a case study, I would love to see it.

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