Paula Deen, the 66-year-old Southern belle whose megawatt smile and cholesterol-laden recipes catapulted her to the top, continues to dominate the headlines when it comes to race. Her crime? In the wake of a lawsuit that accuses Deen and her company of running a racist, sexist enterprise rife with violence and abuse, Deen admitted in a deposition that she has uttered the N-word.
My reaction? So what.
Less than a week after the Supreme Court scuttled the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — arguably the most important piece of Civil Rights legislation of our time — Paula Deen is a non-story. Or at least she should be, because the court’s decision could pave the way for the disenfranchisement of black and Latino voters not only in the South, but all over this country.
Here is the plain truth
Paula Deen’s use of the N-word makes no difference in the lives of ordinary people of color. Neither does the alleged racism that her brother, Earl “Bubba” Hiers, is accused of in the lawsuit filed by former Deen employee Lisa Jackson.
Even if Hiers routinely targeted black workers with racial epithets and physical abuse, and did so with Deen’s knowledge, as Jackson alleged, that is shameful and regrettable, perhaps even criminal, but it only affects those directly involved. The scuttling of the Voting Rights Act is a different matter.
The Supreme Court decision declared Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. That’s the portion of the law that determines which states and localities must submit voting law changes to the Justice Department for approval. Without that section, the law is virtually unenforceable. Thus, the Supreme Court decision paves the way for states to create barriers that substantially reduce the impact of black and Latino voters.
Why everyone should care
What difference should that make to non-minorities? For those who believe, as the Founding Fathers did, that only a small, moneyed segment of the population should decide elections, it may not matter.
But for those voters who believe that democracy truly means one person-one vote, the ruling should be troubling. Not just because it will reduce the number of black and Latino voters, but because it will minimize the impact of progressive and liberal white voters who tend to support similar candidates.
Texas has already announced its intention to implement a tough Voter ID law and redistricting plan that the Justice Department said will disenfranchise Latino voters. And in two weeks, the courts will begin looking at a Pennsylvania Voter ID law that critics say will make voting more difficult for minorities and the poor.
What do these two Voter ID laws have in common? They were pushed through by conservative legislatures and governors who stand to benefit politically from the disenfranchisement of black voters who tend to lean left.
This is not a conservative versus liberal rant. The Supreme Court justices interpreted the law as they saw fit, and we now have to live with the consequences. I’m disappointed by that reality. But I’m more troubled that when millions of people are left at the mercy of those who don’t want them to vote, we are fixated on a woman whose claim to fame is southern fried chicken.
Be that as it may, I’m not angry at Paula Deen. She used the N-word and I respect her for admitting it.
That’s more than I can say for the employers who concoct excuses for their refusal to hire minorities.
It’s more than I can say for the unions right here in Philadelphia that continue to keep black membership at a minimum.
It’s more than I can say for the very media outlets who have lined up to criticize Deen — outlets that have very few blacks within their ranks.
The bright side
Beyond those grim realities, however, there is hope.
It is the hope that inspires all kinds of Americans to dream; a simple hope that transcends the social constructs of race; a hope that is lived out in the actions of good people of every color and creed.
What is that hope, you ask?
It is the hope that hard work can overcome barriers.
It is the hope that if we’re twice as good as those who would stand in our way, we might get the opportunity to show it.
Such hope continues to bring people from every corner of the earth to America.
Such hope brought my forebears to Philadelphia from South Carolina.
Such hope must drive the voters who will face new barriers as a result of the Supreme Court decision.
It is my hope that we’ll place more emphasis on the importance of that battle than we’ll place on the inane utterances of Paula Deen.
Join Solomon Jones at 5 p.m. Tuesday as he celebrates being honored as one of the 50 authors who represent Philly’s literary legacy: Warmdaddy’s, 1400 S. Columbus Blvd, Philadelphia.