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.