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What Paula Deen Could Teach John Roberts

One week, two visions of Southern progress


The biggest surprise in the Paula Deen saga isn’t the spectacle of the former belle of butter and lard being outed for harboring romantic fantasies about plantation privilege. It’s the level to which the ignominious revelations took so many people by surprise. Yes, Deen is a well-packaged celebrity. But the realty is that racial reveals from the South are as predictable as reports about its obesity rates.

In 2011 and 2012, while I was writing a book making a northerners’ case for Southern secession, similarly shocking news stories would occasionally ooze out of the South and into the media. Third grade math teachers in a suburban Atlanta school decide to mix in a little slave history with a set of story problems that posed such questions as “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?” A serious presidential candidate from Texas admits that the name of his family’s ranch was once “Niggerhead.” When these stories would break, I’d receive emails from my editor or publicist bemoaning missed opportunities. Too bad these events hadn’t taken place closer to our publication date, they said, they’d have made for great publicity hooks for the book.

By then a few years into my research, I was able to assuage their anxiety. Don’t worry, I replied, other southern scandals will come chugging down those tracks, right on time. And so they did—a bunch of Texans and assorted southerners angry at the re-election of a black man petitioning for secession. A group from Shelby County, Alabama, finding their way to the Supreme Court to challenge Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the one requiring that areas of the country with a virulent history of racial discrimination must receive federal approval before making changes in their voting laws.

The stories made my book feel relevant and topical. They still do, especially after a week in which the Supreme Court—taking sides on that same Voting Rights Act case—declared that the South is a totally different place now.

The reason Paula Deen became such a popular symbol is because, until recently, she seemed to personify the image that modern southerners so desperately want to project—a bridge between the more acceptable elements of the genteel Old South (manners, refinement, hospitality, good ol’ fashion down home cookin’) and the noble progress of the New South, the one that’s presumably left racial enmity and redneck ignorance far behind it. It’s an idealized self-image meant to convey the idea that, yes we can proudly fly the Confederate flag as a symbol of our rich cultural heritage without having to apologize for its uglier historic associations.

This is why, while Honey Boo Boo and the Duck Dynasty gang may have achieved a certain level of celebrity, they were never going to be wreathed with the same royal garland as Deen.

Deen stands as part of an entrenched, middle-of-the-road culture whose drawing room protocols are set in the same enduring stone as the Ten Commandments, and are just as impossible to avoid Down South. I gave money to her twice during my recent travels there—the biscuits and fried chicken at her restaurant are addictive—but I also gave it to such regional totems as Maurice Bessinger, whose chain of Piggie Park barbecue restaurants have made him legend in South Carolina.

Bessinger is a genuine piece of Dixie work, a successful businessman who in 1966 was sued by the NAACP after refusing to integrate his restaurants in accordance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court. He lost the legal battle and grudgingly integrated his restaurants, but he won the war for the hearts and minds of South Carolinians forever. South Carolina has been kind to Bessinger: There are now 14 restaurants in his chain. Walk into the flagship store in Columbia and you’ll find the walls plastered with Civil War memorabilia and framed testimonials from patrons, most written within the last decade, praising this “modern-day patriot” for his courageous defense of real American values.

Available at the front counter, Bessinger’s gasbagging autobiography is one of the most weirdly entertaining summations of a delusional southern cultural mindset ever printed. In Defending My Heritage (Growing Up Southern), the Korean War vet’s paranoid rant about the Japanese he encountered on a visit there in the 1950s is hysterical in every sense of the word. But my favorite line about his account of growing up southern is this whopper: “White people are the best friends, historically, that blacks have ever had.”

Bessinger may not have the same national platform as Deen—and he’s a less apologetic about his Confederate sympathies—but he exists along the same spectrum. His are not the words of a fringe wacko, as embarrassed southerners like to portray people like Bessinger. They’re the words of a hugely successful entrepreneur and public figure—what most of us identify as a community leader. From high-profile ministers to politicians to business owners to celebrities, it’s a type that mainstream southerners publicly distance themselves from, but which they keep elevating to positions of status in communities across the region. Sometimes, as with Deen, those figures are propelled, or propel themselves, into the national spotlight.

The conventional pushback here, one that’s been rolled out in Deen’s defense, is that if the existence of mouth breathers can’t exactly be excused, it can at least be explained by the fact that they grew up in a pre-Civil Rights South, a time when racial politics were so charged that they left an indelible mark on all who came in contact with them. Just as we all have to forgive ourselves for some of our old friends, we have to forgive others for their upbringings.

The implication behind this argument is that “things are getting better,” that with the passing of the generational torch, the South has changed and is changing still.

The primary factor optimists cite as evidence of emerging racial equanimity in the South is the warming attitudes among that great hope of the world known as the Younger Generation. Despite the fact that in the history of the world no group has ever failed so consistently and so spectacularly to live up to its grand promise, upon the shoulders of this gauzily defined pillar of reliability are placed the burden of many eternal problems facing mankind. The beloved and innocent progeny of the already corrupted are expected to rise up, repair the world’s wrongs and atone for the sins of previous generations.

This is particularly true in Dixie. From Virginia to Florida, I’ve encountered proponents of the “young people are changing the South” theory, all of them anxious to pawn off the problems of race on this unproven though somehow highly regarded plebian force.

To quote Jake Barnes, “Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so.”

It’s easy to be seduced by reports of colorblind progress. They make you feel good about the future of race relations, not just in the South but the entire country. Trouble is, while these stories might comfort tourists ambling beneath the moss-draped live oak in Savannah’s Forsyth Park (mere blocks from Paula Deen’s flagship restaurant), as arguments for a genuine post-racial South, they’re not an accurate barometer.

It turns out that despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, breathless predictions of a “new” racially tolerant South have been deceiving the national media for more than a century.

In a ludicrously out of touch 2011 column that appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the state’s largest newspaper, Andy Brack, president and chairman of South Carolina-based think tank Center for a Better South, described southern schools as something just short of a puppies-and-rainbows love fest. Brack’s Betty Crocker absurdities were pillowed out beneath the headline, “My, how things have changed.”

“These days, students across the South attend integrated classes with white, brown and black students. Although some schools may be more white or black than others, integration is accepted and has become part of our culture—so much so that news stories of racism are considered abnormal. Today, a black family or professional can travel—even at night—without worrying about being refused a hotel room or a place at a restaurant’s table.”

Whoa! Even at night blacks can now travel in the South without worry of being lynched? The nation can thank Brack for letting it know how cushy African Americans have it in the twenty-first century.

In his landmark The Mind of the South, published in 1941, W.J. Cash reveals that this happy tale was a familiar one even in the age of Jim Crow. “Articles in the chief magazines hopefully announcing that the South was beginning to generate a wholly new attitude toward the Negro, were common even before 1910; commoner in the 1920’s,” wrote Cash. “And in 1929 so astute a social critic as Oswald Garrison Villard, writing in Harper’s, could actually see the whole color line in the South as in the process of fairly rapid disintegration!”

In official and overt terms, that government-mandated “color line” may indeed be gone. But while governments can pass laws, they can’t so easily change cultures; the tenacity and staying power of Confederate attitudes remains remarkably strong.

Last week, Chief Justice John Roberts fell for the same old ruse.

“Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically,” Roberts said in explaining the Court’s decision to strike down the section of the Voting Rights Act that blocks discriminatory voting laws. Roberts may have been addressing specifics in minority voting trends, but only someone impressed with the deeply superficial would make such a sweeping statement about the South.

Inarguably, racial progress has been made. Despite cosmetic fixes, however, the essential markers of Southern identity remain static. The South is still the country’s center of sharia-like Christian evangelism and hyper-religiosity. It sends the same ultra-conservative, Senator Claghorn obstructionists to Washington that it always has. As it’s done since before the Civil War, it continues to lag behind the rest of the country in nearly every measure of public education you can summon. As it has done since the days of the Founding Fathers, it continues to find creative ways to exploit labor and maintain the lowest wages, poorest working conditions and most virulent anti-worker attitudes in the country. Look at the building blocks of the society and the fundamental cultural conditions that make the South the South and you see that Dixie hasn’t changed as much as many people like to pretend it has.

Think the South has changed? Wait six months. If another national outrage hasn’t come seeping out of the region by then, I’ll burn my authentic KKK outfit, complete with white robe, hood, insignia and rope belt. The one I bought for $125 from a self-proclaimed Grand Dragon openly operating a shop just across from the courthouse in the charming little town square in historic Laurens, South Carolina.

In 2011.