So I have something . . . uncomfortable to write about. It’s not the kind of thing I really like to address in “Pleading the Phyth,” but current events won’t let me stop thinking about it.
It’s an ugly word, an ugly fact, and it’s been in the news a lot this summer. The Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin. Paula Deen was pilloried for admitting to using the N-word and lost all her endorsement deals and her job at Food Network. In the U.S., the Summer of 2013 has been about race.
It’s easiest, I think, to look at the current state of racism in the U.S. through the lens of Paula Deen’s spectacular fall from grace. Two months ago, she was everyone’s favorite deep-fried, Southern cook. She pandered exceptionally decadent, unhealthy recipes with a twinkle in her eye and a charming, old-fashioned Southern belle accent. When the fat girl who taught you how to make yourself as fat as she embraced heretofore unknown levels of irony and signed an endorsement deal to push diabetes medicine from Novo Nordisk, hardly a viewer batted an eye.
But then she got sued for creating a hostile work environment, and, in her deposition, she admitted to having dropped N-bombs in the past.
The public outrage was immediate and loud. Deen appeared to trip at the zenith of a high mountain and come crashing rapidly down, hitting every rock and tree between the summit and the foot. After giving herself a black eye with the admission, she made things worse by not actually apologizing for having said it and then weeping to Matt Laurer that the only time she ever used it was when a black man robbed her. As though that made it forgivable.
Deen is old enough to be my mother. The Voting Rights Act the Supreme Court destroyed while she was nuking her own reputation was enacted when she was a young woman, meaning the Civil Rights battle swirled around her in her formative years. That a Southern woman in her 60’s having used the N-word at some time in her past should come as a surprise to anyone is astounding to me. It’s not that I’m not offended she used it. It’s that, given her upbringing, I just can’t be surprised.
But that’s really what’s at the heart of this Summer of Racism. We want to be surprised. We want to be shocked. We want to be outraged that anyone could behave in racist fashion in 21st Century America.
Alabama sued to have the Voting Rights Act repealed on the grounds that it is no longer necessary. The South, it claimed, has moved past racism. And because this is the 21st Century and we want to believe that, the Supreme Court agreed and struck it down.
Some of us, at least, want to believe the justice system worked when George Zimmerman was acquitted. The state couldn’t prove its case, so the accused went free. That’s the way it’s supposed to happen.
But that conclusion ignores one very important fact: Trayvon Martin is dead, because he was a black kid walking through a white neighborhood. Zimmerman didn’t like how he was dressed and didn’t think he belonged where he was. So he pursued him and confronted him. And then things went sideways, and an innocent kid ended up dead.
We want to believe we are no longer a nation mired in racism. But it’s just not true. Race is still a very big deal.
You can point to the South and say it’s their fault. You can look at all three of the incidents I’m covering and note they all happened in the South. You can go all the way back to the Civil War, say it was about slavery, and point to all the modern-day assholes who put the Stars and Bars on their vehicles and say things like, “The South will rise again!”
And you’d probably be right about all that. But the South does not have a monopoly on racism. Here in the oh-so-progressive Midwest, it only took University of Kansas guard Elijah Johnson dunking to end with emphasis a basketball game at Iowa State for irate Cyclones fans to call him the N-word on Twitter.
In liberal California, just like everywhere else in the U.S., they incarcerate far more black men than white.
In the Southwest and Texas, they are determined not only to keep the Mexicans out of our country, but to deny a path to citizenship for those here illegally.
States with virtually no history of voter fraud now require you to show a driver’s license or other state-issued ID to vote — a move that impacts non-white voters much more heavily.
And in our nation’s capital, they do not understand why using a racial slur as the nickname for their professional football team would be considered offensive. They even have the gall to refer to it as a term of respect.
I am not here to call us a nation of racists. I do not believe most Americans are racist, and I believe a lot of racism is unintentional, born of pure ignorance. We have, as the saying goes, come a long way.
But the dark specter of racism in the U.S. has not been banished. It still infects our national body like a sickness we have not yet found a cure for. We may have come a long way, but we have a long way to go.
Paula Deen may have long ago stopped dropping N-bombs. But the attitude she expressed towards her black employees in her interview with Matt Laurer suggests she still looks down on them.
The jury in the George Zimmerman trial may have acted absolutely rightly in acquitting him. But Trayvon Martin is dead because he was black.
And the five Supreme Court Justices who voted to kill the Voting Rights Act may honestly believe we have entered a post-racism age. But if they do they are naive.
I’m not done writing about this. If you’ve read one of my books, you know they weave social issues through the plot on a thematic level. I had already been planning to tackle racism in an upcoming novel.
But it seems more important now. We’ve got to stop believing we’re past this and do the hard work of becoming a better people.