Time for America to get as angry about oppressive conditions facing Blacks today as it has about Paula Deen

This photo of Paula Deen is attributed to lifescript (http://www.flickr.com/photos/35560790@N03/) and used under a Creative Commons License.by Vanessa Wills

Paula Deen’s drawn scorn for fitting all too well the caricature of the “N-word”-spewing old Southern racist waxing nostalgic about a time before the Civil War. Yet especially in the light of this week’s Supreme Court decisions, much of that outrage would be better and more credibly directed at racist policies excluding Blacks from major institutions of American public life in the here and now.

Over the past week, there has been much outrage over Paula Deen’s admissions that she’s used the “N-word” and entertained fantasies of reliving the South’s slaveowning past. [1],[2] And while it is indeed gratifying to see a racist taken down a few notches, the widespread vocal condemnations and professions of shocked disbelief with regard to Deen’s attitudes should cause some cognitive dissonance in anyone paying attention to the conditions for Black people in the United States. The swift popular reaction to Deen stands in stark relief against the widespread indifference to Black people’s concerns—an indifference shared by elected officials, media outlets, and many of the same folks eagerly taking to social media to denounce Deen.

If Deen longs to see Black people relegated to the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, she could take her pick from many of the major institutions of American public life. For instance, in my own very typical experience, I had exactly one Black professor during my entire four years as a college student. The people staffing the kitchens and cleaning the buildings, however, were disproportionately Black and Brown people of color. Black faculty members at the university where I currently teach are few and far between. But again, Blacks are disproportionately represented among the custodial staff. For most students at most universities, there is a far better chance that the person cleaning the classroom will be Black than there is that the person teaching in that room will be, as anyone who understands the nature of higher education in the U.S. can well attest.

Blacks are disproportionately affected by cuts in social spending, attacks on public education, the War on Drugs, and the build-up of the prison system, and yet politicians offer few solutions beyond victim-blaming and the neoliberal mantra of “personal responsibility” in the place of social programs. Recent Supreme Court decisions chip away at the gains of the Black Civil Rights Movement and threaten to push Blacks further into the margins of public life. If there were as much broad popular outrage about these conditions as there has been about Deen’s bigoted and foolish comments, then we might be poised to win a world in which it would make perfect sense to delight in ridiculing Deen as a dinosaur out of touch with our modern post-racial society, then give the matter not much more thought. But as it happens, Deen’s fantasies of Black subservience and inferiority reflect all too well the actual oppression of Blacks and the ongoing trends that will tend to deepen that oppression.

Racist Fantasy All Too Real Today in Recent Supreme Court Decisions

This week, those who wish to see the further marginalization of Black people from American public life have two major legal victories to celebrate. I am referring here of course to the Supreme Court’s decisions to weaken both affirmative action in education and the Voting Rights Act.

On June 24, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, finding that affirmative action in education is constitutional but that universities who use affirmative action measures must be prepared to demonstrate that race-neutral methods would not produce a level of diversity sufficient to bring about the benefits sought in promoting diversity. Some liberal news outlets and civil rights groups have cheered the fact that the Supreme Court did not strike affirmative action down outright. For instance, The New York Times referred to the decision as a “reprieve” for affirmative action and Roslyn Brock of the NAACP called it “a critical decision toward ensuring equal opportunity in education”—a startlingly absurd comment when the decision is by all measures a step backward from that goal[3][4]. Practically speaking, the decision makes it more difficult for universities to diversify their campuses and discourages such attempts at diversification. It encourages further attacks on affirmative action and, ultimately, on the presence of non-Whites in places of higher education. As Lyle Denniston writes for ScotusBlog.com:

[T]he university has to prove to a court that it has first tried some other methods of encouraging minority students to enroll that do not give any consideration, whatsoever, to race. If those other methods are “workable,” that’s probably the end of the inquiry: race cannot then be used at all.

Such alternatives do not have to promise to work as well as a racial factor might in increasing minority enrollment; it is sufficient if they would promote that goal “about as well,” according to the opinion.[5]

The fact that liberals could point to this decision as a cause for any celebration is testament to the weak and defensive posture of the U.S. left in general and of Black politics and the civil rights movement in particular. Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin is aptly characterized as a win for those who’d rather see fewer people of color in the halls of academia unless, perhaps, we are there to sweep them.

Hard on the heels of that decision, the Supreme Court decided on June 25 to strike down the “preclearance” clause in the Voting Rights Act which held that states and counties with histories of racial discrimination at the polls could not enact new voting laws without federal approval. Here, even the most starry-eyed of Pollyannas could not fail to see this as a major step backward for civil rights and a boon to reaction, as this decision paves the way for the disenfranchisement of Blacks and other people of color, and their exclusion from the institutions of public life. It comes just months after Voter ID laws which would have disproportionately kept Blacks out of voting booths were proposed in numerous states and struck down as unconstitutional. Mere hours after the new Supreme Court decision, Texas announced its enactment of a Voter ID law to “take effect immediately”[6]. Over the next 48 hours, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Virginia all began to follow suit.[7]

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent from the Supreme Court decision, wrote that “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”[8] Ginsburg’s analogy is well-put, and yet I would add that even with the Voting Rights Act still intact, Blacks have been disproportionately and systematically excluded from the polls through institutions such as the notorious “felony disenfranchisement” laws that strip voting rights, often permanently, from those convicted of felonies. In 2012, The Sentencing Project found that 7% of Blacks in the U.S. have lost the right to vote, compared to 1.8% of the general population. In Virginia, Florida, and Kentucky, 20% of the Black population lacks the basic democratic right to cast a ballot.[9] We can only reasonably expect catastrophic results for the future of the Black vote now that the “umbrella” of constitutional protection has been ripped away.

Photo attributed to PeoplesWorld on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons License.This all takes place at the same time that attacks on young people’s right to an education make it less likely they will enter university and more likely they will enter the criminal justice system. Earlier this month in Philadelphia, just days after officials announced the closure of 23 city schools due to budget cuts, it was announced that construction would soon begin on a $400 million dollar prison. [10] This illustrated for many the systemic nature of the exclusion of Blacks from public life and the drive to push them, through the War on Drugs and other means, into conditions of brutality, domination, and disenfranchisement.

Journalist Rania Khalek has called this an example of the “school-to-prison pipeline,” writing that:

Education privatization advocates and prison industry profiteers share the same target demographic: poor communities of color (makes the “school-to-prison-pipeline” a lot more literal). Exhibit A is mass school closures, just the latest scheme in corporate school reform being implemented in cities across the country. But the pain is far from evenly distributed.

In Philadelphia, black students comprise 81 percent of those who will be impacted by the closings despite accounting for just 58 percent of the overall student population. […] For now, privatization only works when targeting the most politically disenfranchised communities because in the eyes of decision makers their voices don’t matter. Is it any coincidence, then, that these poor and mostly black children grow up to be the targets of an even more ruthless prison industry?[11]

Philadelphia is not alone. Widespread school closings disproportionately affect Black children in cities across the U.S. at the same time that prison budgets soar, dollars are pumped into police departments tasked with prosecuting the War on Drugs, and stop-and-frisk policies mean that young Blacks find themselves brought under police control simply for the transgression of existing as Black youths in public spaces.

Again, who can say that Paula Deen’s fantasy of Blacks restricted to the lower rungs of society is simply the sad echo of a time long gone?

The reality is that conditions for Blacks in the U.S. are bad and getting worse, and yet precious little is done to reverse the trend. Instead, at all levels of government we see policies enacted that worsen it, yet do not draw even a small fraction of the broad, multiracial, popular rebuke Deen has.

In an article published by Black Agenda Report, Colin Jenkins drew attention to the ongoing long-term continuity of policies begun under Reagan’s presidency, which disproportionately harm Blacks. The results of cuts to social spending and the build-up of the prison system, which has continued unabated under the Obama administration, are statistics such as the following: 1 in 15 Black men, but only 1 in 106 White men, are incarcerated. 27% of those living below the poverty line are Black while Blacks only make up 13.8% of the population in the United States. And Blacks are “the only demographic group with higher unemployment today than when Obama took office.”[12]

Yet it seems the only officially proffered remedy to this state of affairs is the language of “personal responsibility” which, because of the objective imbalances of power and structures of systemic racism in the U.S., does not amount to much more than simple victim-blaming. In a 2009 speech to mostly Black and Latino students, President Barack Obama lectured the young people that their life-circumstances, including “how much money you have” and “what you’ve got going on at home” were “no excuse” for “having a bad attitude.” He stated that “the best schools in the world” wouldn’t matter if young people didn’t fulfill their “responsibilities.”[13] To that, I say this is a hypothesis well worth testing; there are millions of children and families waiting to find out just what would happen if American lawmakers put less money into imprisoning our youth and set out instead to create the best schools in the world.

Conclusion

There is little question that Paula Deen, who has described slavery as a phenomenon that made Southern slaveholding Whites “less prejudiced” because “Black folks played such an integral part in our lives,” and were “like our family,” richly deserves to be castigated and to have her views thoroughly and publicly discredited.[16] This is especially so as these offensive positions are not merely her own, but are also held by others who seek to rehabilitate the antebellum South in the popular imagination.

However, the chorus of reproach that has greeted revelations of Deen’s racism further highlights the deafening national silence about the oppression of Black people, who are disproportionately affected by the issues of poverty, cuts in education and other social spending, the War on Drugs, and the rapid growth of the prison system. There is a widespread indifference to Black concerns, together with a collapse of Black political leadership over the past several decades that has accelerated in the context of “post-racialism” and is exemplified by the weakness of Black opposition to the destructive policies carried out by the current administration. Together, these factors embolden efforts to chip away at the hard-won gains of the Civil Rights Movement, as Supreme Court decisions this week have rudely reminded us.

It is not enough to clutch our pearls and decry the poor taste of Paula Deen’s remarks while polite society remains perfectly willing to stomach the ongoing, systematic, and steadily deepening oppression of Blacks and other minorities. Knowing that it’s wrong to use the “N-word” and dress people up in slave outfits does not an anti-racist make. Rather, all who wish to meaningfully oppose racism must take up the courage to do so not just when it is clear-cut and simple, but also when a commitment to anti-racism and Black liberation calls on us to oppose some of the most powerful corporate and political interests dominating public life, to challenge the logic of neoliberal budget-cutting and victim-blaming, to look beneath the surface of poverty and inequality to find root causes, and to hold off on congratulating ourselves about how far our country has moved on from the “bad old days.” For millions of people still suffering, bad days are here.


[1] Amber Ryland, “Paula Deen admits using the N-word & making racial jokes In explosive deposition”. Radar Online. http://radaronline.com/exclusives/2013/06/paula-deen-racist-jokes-deposition/

[2] “Paula Deen racist comments, use of N-word allegedly caught on video”. The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/19/paula-deen-racist-comments-n-word-caught-on-video_n_3467287.html

[3] Editorial board of the New York Times. “A reprieve for affirmative action”. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/25/opinion/a-reprieve-for-affirmative-action.html

[4] “Civil rights groups celebrate Supreme Court decision on affirmative action”, Atlanta Daily World,  http://www.atlantadailyworld.com/201306257007/Original/civil-rights-groups-celebrate-supreme-court-decision-on-affirmative-action

[5] Lyle Denniston has discussed these consequences in greater detail in his blog post titled, “Opinion recap: More rigorous race review”.  ScotusBlog.com. http://www.scotusblog.com/2013/06/opinion-recap-more-rigorous-race-review/

[6] Ed Pilkington, “Texas rushes ahead with voter ID law after supreme court decision,” The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/25/texas-voter-id-supreme-court-decision

[7] Joseph Diebold, “Six states already moving forward with voting restrictions after Supreme Court Decision”. ThinkProgress. http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2013/06/27/2223471/six-states-already-moving-forward-with-voting-restrictions-after-supreme-court-decision/?mobile=nc

[8] Brentin Mock, “Justice Ginsburg quotes King and Shakespeare in Shelby dissent”. Colorlines.com. http://colorlines.com/archives/2013/06/justice_ginsburg_quotes_king_and_shakespeare_in_shelby_dissent.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+racewireblog+%28Colorlines.com%29

[9] Michael McLaughlin, “Felon voting laws disenfranchise 5.85 million americans with criminal records: The Sentencing Project”. Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/12/felon-voting-laws-disenfranchise-sentencing-project_n_1665860.html

[10] “Philadelphia adopting ‘doomsday’ school-slashing plan despite $400 million prison project”. Russia Today. http://rt.com/usa/philadelphia-doomsday-despite-prison-project-292/

[11] Rania Khalek, “Philadelphia is closing 23 schools while building a $400 million prison”. Dispatches from the Underclass. http://raniakhalek.com/2013/06/05/philadelphia-is-closing-23-schools-while-building-a-400-million-prison/

[12] Colin Jenkins, “Political crossover: The troubling emergence of “Black Reaganism”. Black Agenda Report. http://www.blackagendareport.com/content/political-crossover-troubling-emergence-black-reaganism

[13] The speech was also broadcast to schools across the country. “Prepared remarks of President Obama: Back to school event”. The White House. http://www.whitehouse.gov/MediaResources/PreparedSchoolRemarks/

[14] Alex Spillius, “Barack Obama tells Africa to stop blaming colonialism for problems”. The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/5778804/Barack-Obama-tells-Africa-to-stop-blaming-colonialism-for-problems.html

[15] Nick Turse, “Obama’s scramble for Africa: U.S. ‘stabiity has ripped Africa apart”. Mail & Guardian. http://mg.co.za/article/2013-06-27-us-stability-has-ripped-africa-apart

[16] “Paula Deen on race in 2012 TimesTalk”. http://www.nytimes.com/video/2013/06/22/us/100000002296089/paula-deen-on-race-in-2012-timestalk.html

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