Both are in the national news for entirely different reasons, but their lives have converged nonetheless, ripping open an old wound.
According to Paula Deen’s homegrown legend, her story begins in Savannah where her self-published cookbook was purchased by an editor from a big New York publishing house. The editor loved it, offered Deen a contract and the rest is history.
Peaches and cream Paula became a Southern cooking icon. Then, in a public legal proceeding, she admitted using a racial slur to describe blacks.
Let’s be clear. The “n-word” should always be off limits to white people. It’s an ugly word rooted in the worst of white-black relations, linked to a time when African-Americans were considered sub-human chattel. When used by whites, the n-word is associated by blacks with slavery, segregation and lynching.
Trayvon Martin was the 17-year-old African-American son of a divorced couple. His middle-class parents were evidently doing what they could to make sure Trayvon grew up right. Like a lot of teenagers, he apparently got into trouble from time to time.
Walking home from a convenience store last year, minding his own business, Trayvon was stalked by the white George Zimmerman then shot during a struggle. Forty-five days passed before Zimmerman was finally charged with a crime.
Martin’s death has led not only to the cop-wannabe’s jury trial, but Trayvon’s trial in the court of public opinion.
Just weeks before Zimmerman’s hearing began, his lawyer attempted to sway possible jury members by smearing Trayvon as a dangerous thug, the stereotypical, black street tough soaked in drugs and crime, a vicious punk who got what was coming to him.
Naturally, far right media types exploited that racist narrative.
“If anyone had a crime committed against them (it was Zimmerman),” pronounced Rush Limbaugh, who added, “The race industry ... made this trial happen.”
Paula Deen wasn’t shot to death, but she did pay a steep professional price for her use of the n-word. The Food Network canceled her popular show and nearly all her major sponsors abandoned her.
Now the right wing’s favorite piñata — the so-called “liberal media” — is to blame for the cooking diva’s crash and burn.
“The media pounced on this violation of political correctness, and that’s all this is,” growled Glenn Beck, who said The Food Network “gave in to the growing American atmosphere of fear and silence.”
Fox News commentator Todd Starnes added, “The liberal, anti-South media … (is) trying to crucify Paula Deen.”
“My reaction to all of the companies … that have decided to punish Mrs. Deen is to use other suppliers due to their hypocrisy,” wrote an MDJ reader this week. “If they were to question all of their employees and receive honest answers about the use of the n-word in the past and terminated them on that basis, many stores would close for lack of personnel.”
To a point, the reader is right. We’ve all used the slur. The difference is we aren’t national public figures. We don’t have a TV show and we don’t sell merchandise bearing our smiling faces to consumers. And many television viewers and consumers are African-Americans who are deeply and understandably offended when whites utter the n-word.
Paula Deen and Trayvon Martin have become the latest avatars for race relations in America. In the self-inflicted downfall of Deen, we hear sympathy and support from many white people. In the senseless shooting of Martin, we hear contempt and justification.
America still has a long way to go.
Kevin Foley is a public relations executive, author and writer who lives in Kennesaw.