Merlene Davis: There are many issues more important than Paula Deen's words

Herald-Leader columnistJune 26, 2013 

A lot of folks have asked when I would dive into the controversy created by celebrity cook Paula Deen's response to a pending racial discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuit filed against her and her brother, Earl "Bubba" Hiers.

I really hadn't planned on saying anything. I am not worried about a rich white woman calling black people niggers. Seemed like a tempest in a teapot.

In case you hadn't heard, in a May 17 deposition, when asked if she had used the n-word before, Deen said, "of course," as if to say, "hasn't everyone?" That didn't go over very well with folks who weren't fanatical about Deen.

I thought her response was truthful, especially because of the "of course." She wasn't trying to be the least bit politically correct. Since then, however, she has said she has used the n-word only once, canceling any credibility she had gained with me.

Belittling her fellow man and woman, however, is something she will have to account for with someone far more powerful than me.

I think there are many more important issues in the news right now that should be more upsetting to people than what Deen said. One is the impending death of Nelson Mandela, an icon of South African civil rights. Another is the U.S. Supreme Court's near-fatal crippling of part of the Voting Rights Act, which brought never-before-seen equity to blacks in the past. And then there is the shooting death of a teenager in Florida who was armed only with iced tea and Skittles.

I'll start with the man who took South Africa from an oppressive segregationist-style government to one that tried to right all the wrongs. Mandela was arrested for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow apartheid and the South African government in 1962, and he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. An international effort gained his release in 1990. He was 44 years old when he entered prison and 71 when he was released.

In the 23 years since his release, Mandela became the first black president of that minority white-ruled country and led efforts of reconciliation and restoration for South Africans of all colors.

He is assumed to be dying of lung disease, which is connected to the years he spent in the dank prison cells in near-solitary confinement.

Talking about Mandela, and how he endured years of being called kaffir — the South African equivalent to the n-word — is more important to me than talking about a rich Southern white woman who is clinging to the antebellum era.

Will his death mean the victories he won will be revisited and reversed?

After the U.S. Supreme Court's decision Tuesday, that seems to be what's happening in the United States. The justices voted 5-4 to remove safeguards that have allowed black voters to stay on a level political playing field with their white counterparts in regions where voting equity has not been embraced.

We ought to be talking about the U.S. Supreme Court's assumption that the Old South, the one that limited freedom and rights for black people, will not rise again.

Instead of Deen's less-than-convincing performance Wednesday morning on The Today Show, let's discuss how many elections it will take before unsupervised gerrymandering will create a new imbalance reflective of the history Deen misses so much.

Soon after the decision was handed down, Texas officials moved to implement a 2011 redistricting plan that was deemed by federal judges to be discriminatory to Texas minority voters. And the state attorney general said that the state's voter identification plan, which requires voters to show a photo ID at the polls, would immediately take effect.

That will hurt blacks more than the n-word.

And we should be discussing the numerous untimely deaths of innocent black youth that have become epidemic throughout this country.

The death of unarmed Trayvon Martin, 17, last year at the hands of overzealous Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shouldn't be any more shocking than the death of unarmed Jamal Jones, 19, of Chicago as he rode his bike home from a relative's house on Father's Day.

I can't get upset about a derogatory term when human beings are dying senselessly.

And if Zimmerman manages to wiggle free of a conviction despite getting out of his truck when he was told not to, following Martin when he shouldn't have, and then killing the teen just because the boy fought back against the stranger tailing him, then we should be upset at how undervalued our youth are.

If Zimmerman is found not guilty, we should go on Twitter and Facebook and demand action so that the next young life snuffed out willy-nilly in Florida or Texas or Kentucky will be just as important and covered just as intently by the media as the hurtful words of a cook.

I can imaging how momentous Wednesday's Supreme Court's decision was for same-sex spouses who had followed the letter of the law and gotten married, only to be deemed by the federal government to be less than the equal of heterosexual spouses.

I watched gays and non-gays celebrating this country's latest step forward and hoped their euphoria would last for a long time.

There is no joy in being imprisoned because you fought for equality, no fun in tasting the freedom of voting rights only to have them snatched away, and no pleasure in losing a son or daughter in a wave of violence that warrants only a brief in most newspapers.

Our focus should not be on the tearless affectations of a cook, but on how this country and this world treat those who have been devalued.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: Merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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