Paula Deen, voting rights and the ‘New South’

 (Cartoon by Rob Tornoe)

(Cartoon by Rob Tornoe)

This is commentary from political blogger and cartoonist Rob Tornoe.

People have changed.

That seems to be the imputes behind a divided Supreme Court’s decision to gut the Voting Rights Act. The court ruled 5-4 that Section 4 under the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional, twisting logic to determine that discrimination isn’t rampant enough in Southern states to warrant continued restrictions.

Considering it took the Attorney General of Texas just two hours after the Supreme Court’s ruling to advance a voter ID law and redistricting map that was blocked last year for it’s discrimination against black and Latino voters, I’m not sure their ruling was sound. Texas isn’t the only state to quickly move to restrict voting rights – North Carolina and Mississippi also plan to pass strict voter ID laws in the wake of the court’s ruling. 

”Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the Voting Rights Act,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her dissention. “When confronting the most constitutionally invidious form of discrimination, and the most fundamental right in our democratic system, Congress’ power to act is at its height.”

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Thanks to the court’s ruling, the Department of Justice now has no power to block terrible laws like the one Texas is now pushing, and millions of voters in need will now lack Congressional oversight for fair elections. Individuals still have the right to sue and end measures like this, but not before they’ve gone into law and potentially disfranchised countless minority voters. Congress could act, but … I’m sorry, I started laughing uncontrollably before I could even finish typing that sentence.

Which brings me to Paula Deen.

Deen attempted a teary-eyed mea culpa on the “Today” show this morning, following a bad week when it was revealed she used the N-word in the past and is being sued for racial and sexual discrimination by Lisa Jackson, a former manager of her Savannah restaurant. Deen, who was canned by the Food Network and Smithfield Foods, told the audience she wouldn’t have fired someone who said the things she did, and defiantly told them if they never regretted sinning, “please take up that stone and throw it as hard as they can and kill me.”

It’s a nice deflection, but Deen polarizes the “New South” for me, and showcases the reason why the Supreme Court’s decision is so flawed. People have changed in the south, but there remains an unsettling willingness to defend racism as a leftover of a bygone era that’s romanticized and remembered fondly in certain quarters. Deen showcased that sort-of nostalgia with her desire to have a slavery-themed wedding for her brother after eating at a restaurant with an all-black staff.

“I mean, it was really impressive,” Deen is quoted as saying. “That restaurant represented a certain era in America … after the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War.”

It’s almost telling that the media hasn’t really covered the fact that these restaurants still exist in the South as manifestations of that fond remembrance of a bygone era. As Besha Rodell at LA Weekly noted, restaurants like Pittypat’s Porch, fake plantations made to look like pre-Civil War eateries with black waitstaff basically dressed up like slaves, exist all over the South.

Worst than the notion of nostalgia for slavery in the south is the cynical nature of politicians looking to strengthen their hold on power. In Texas, for instance, black and Latino voters overwhelmingly voted for Democrats in 2012. You don’t think that’s a powerful incentive for Republicans, who run the state, to implement laws making it tougher for these voters to cast their ballots?

We may have changed as a society, but keep in mind that less than 100 years ago, women weren’t allowed to vote, and it was less than 50 years ago that voters were prohibited from casting their ballot if they didn’t pay a poll tax. And last night, a white family was served dinner at a wanna-be plantation by an all-black waitstaff in a restaurant named after a slave-owning “Gone With The Wind” character.

So yes, we’ve changed. But have we really changed all that much?


Rob Tornoe is a political cartoonist and a WHYY contributor. See more of his work at, and follow him on twitter @RobTornoe.

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