Carroll County Times

Melinda Henneberger: Equality still has a long way to go

Why, in a week of important Supreme Court decisions, were we so focused on the racial sins and multiple apologies of country cooking's Paula Deen?
It's in part, of course, because we brake for train wrecks, preferring them even to last week's twin local animal stories about Rusty the runaway red panda and the black bear traveling through back yards in Washington.
But we're also clicking on the Deen-athon because the "Oprah of food," as one of the cook's 2.7 million Facebook fans calls her, is a symbol and a symptom - a walking, talking, crying and deep-frying reminder of how much we still need affirmative action and a fully functional Voting Rights Act.
Deen, who told NBC's Matt Lauer, "I is what I is, and I'm not changing," was wrong about that: She has lost her cooking show and her deals with Smithfield Foods, Walmart, Home Depot and Target. All that and more has slipped away since it was reported that she admitted in a legal deposition that "of course" she had used a racial slur in the distant past and dreamed of throwing her brother Bubba a "plantation-themed" wedding dinner served by an all-black waitstaff.
Now even Novo Nordisk has allegedly "suspended," by mutual agreement, the woman who brought the world skillet-fried apple pie as spokeswoman for its diabetes drug. But she is the perfect spokeswoman for a week in which some of the biggest stories circled back to the issue of inequality. To our flawed efforts to live up to that shimmery line in our Declaration of Independence about the apparently not-so-self-evident truth that we are all created equal.
In Florida, where George Zimmerman is on trial in the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin, the friend Martin was on the phone with right before he died testified that he told her, "That 'N-word' is still following me now." She added, "I asked him how the man looked like. He just told me the man looked 'creepy.' 'Creepy, white' - excuse my language - 'cracker. Creepy [expletive] cracker.'" So we've been told that Zimmerman saw Martin through a racial lens. And we now know that Martin saw Zimmerman that way.
In California, same-sex couples will soon be free to marry, but they still can't walk down the aisle in 38 other states. And despite the high court's thumbs-down on the Defense of Marriage Act, we're still nowhere near equality for an awful lot of Americans.
That is why the saddest headline of last week had to be the one announcing that, as Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights leader, put it, "the Supreme Court has stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act" and "gutted the most powerful tool this nation has ever had to stop discriminatory voting practices from becoming law." Now Mississippi and Texas can implement voter ID laws that, whatever their intent, will disenfranchise minority voters.
Across the land, meantime, disappointed white college applicants have effectively been invited to challenge race-conscious admissions plans like the one in Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin, which the Supreme Court sent back to a lower court for further review.
"The worst forms of racial discrimination in this nation have always been accompanied by straight-faced representations that discrimination helped minorities," Clarence Thomas wrote in his concurring opinion. He has long viewed affirmative action as a vote of non-confidence that suggests that maybe minorities aren't as good as anybody else. I'm not puzzled by why he may feel that way; when someone recently observed - with a hug and no ill intent - that my contribution to a certain group was to keep it from being all-male, I smiled on the outside, yet inside narrowed my eyes and gave him the invisible Death Stare.
But the problems caused by affirmative action are nothing compared with what the lack of diversity gets us. Just for example, a 66-year-old multi-millionaire who still doesn't know not to brag that she has a friend who is "black as a board." Who somehow reached retirement age and became a big darn deal without ever learning that, yes, the racial slur in question is offensive. Or that "plantation-style" is not a festive party theme.
Matt Lauer finally did make me feel for her with his blunt questions while she was in tears, acting like some latter-day Jean Le Maistre demanding on behalf of the Inquisition that Joan of Arc forsake men's clothing in prison. (Although if Joan responded that he who is without sin should "pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me," I don't want to know.)
We all pay the price for that kind of not-at-all-benign cluelessness. And for her blind spots and all of ours, what better antidote do we have than the civil rights remedies undermined last week by our highest court?