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Deen scandal highlights culture's double standard on racist talk

By: The Gazette editorial
June 28, 2013 Updated: June 28, 2013 at 12:55 pm
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Food celebrity Paula Deen used the N-word, the ugliest word in the American vernacular, and the admission has ruined her career. It would be nice if we held people of much greater influence to the same high standard.

Deen has been fired from the Food Network. As of Thursday, her contracts were canceled or suspended by Home Depot, Target, the QVC home shopping network, pork producer Smithfield Foods and Wal-Mart.

Deen has free speech, which means the government cannot restrain her from using offensive language. But the First Amendment doesn't mean polite society must tolerate that which is hateful or vulgar. We hope ruination of Deen's small empire indicates a desire by the culture to eradicate racism.

Society has come a long way since Jim Crow laws segregated schools, restaurants, buses, military units, and more, while mandating that white people discriminate against black people.

Yet, something still is not right.

The late Robert Byrd founded a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and worked for years, well into his 20s, as a recruiter for the hate movement. Other Klansmen were so impressed they elected Byrd as their "Exalted Cyclops."

At the height of World War II, Byrd refused to join the military and explained why in a letter to then-Sen. Theodore Bilbo, D-Miss.

"I shall never fight in the armed forces with a negro by my side . Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds."

When this type of talk went out of style, Byrd said he regretted saying such things. Democrats quickly forgave actions mere mortals should not forgive. They not only forgave, but made him the longest-serving member of Congress, where he voted against two African American Supreme Court nominees and filibustered the Civil Rights Act. Democrats made him Senate minority leader and president pro tempore of the Senate, where he served as recently as 2010. Roads buildings and parks carry his name.

In a 1997 interview, Byrd accidentally made clear the reason for his change of heart. Purely political. He told young people to embrace politics and avoid the Ku Klux Klan, because "you inhibit your operations in the political arena."

As Deen's foodie career disintegrates, we should ask why Chris Matthews continues as anchor for MSNBC. After President Barack Obama gave one of his typically eloquent speeches in 2010, Mathhews expressed astonishment that a black man could speak so well.

"You know, I forgot he was black tonight for an hour," Matthews said.

Harry Reid became Senate majority leader after explaining his approval of Obama in 2008. Reid called Obama a "light-skinned African American with no Negro dialect . "

Joseph Biden became vice president after telling the New York Observer in 2007 that Obama may be the only black person who isn't ignorant and unclean. He said it exactly like this: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."

Nationally syndicated cartoonist Ted Rall drew blatantly racist cartoons to show his objections to Condoleeza Rice serving as secretary of state. He drew Rice with lips the size of her head. He created dialogue boxes in which Rice spoke like this: "I knows all about" and "I don't know nuthin' about . "

Rall referred to Rice as the White House "N----" (he spelled it out). A Rall character with a shirt that said "You're not white, stupid" told Rice to "hand over your hair straightener."

After a series of boldly racist cartoons, Rall's peers elected him president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists in 2008.

Americans should not tolerate a celebrity chef whom we suspect is racist. We should have even less tolerance for racist expressions from politicians and high-profile pundits - people who make and influence public policy from the ivory tower.

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