The Paula Deen Phenomenon: Partial Eclipse of the Supreme Court; Total Eclipse of Black PeoplePosted: June 29, 2013
In a recent blog post I described how the corporate media have made Paula Deen the country’s “Designated Racist,” the symbol of and scapegoat for the racism that permeates our society. Having placed the burden of racism squarely on Ms. Deen’s shoulders, the media are free to ignore the racism in American life and in its own day-to-day operations.
To the casual consumer of corporate controlled information, two stories currently dominate the news: Paula Deen and gay marriage. In one story, we have a colorful, flamboyant, self-promoting celebrity chef brought low for admitting that she used the “N-word.” In the other story, the US Supreme Court issued two major decisions on marriage equality, overturning the federal portion of DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act), and rejecting a challenge to the 9th District Court of Appeals ruling that California’s Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.
But other important events have been eclipsed by the ready-made news stories emerging from events in the Deen saga and the wall to wall coverage of reactions, celebratory and condemnatory, to the same-sex marriage decision. Among its many recent decisions the Supreme Court issue two rulings that have serious consequences for Black Americans with respect to access to higher education and protection of the right to vote. However, beyond the meager coverage of the Zimmerman trial in Florida, the most consistent current media reference to Black people – and that indirect and as an afterthought – is as targets of Paula Deen’s breaches of racial etiquette. It is in this setting that we experience the cruel irony that the media’s coverage of issues that affect Black people is framed in terms of a soap opera about a white woman.
The issue isn’t Paula Deen, the person; it is the “Paula Deen Phenomenon,” a planet-sized rolling media circus that has been interposed between the public and other news about events of real significance to Americans.
Every day since June 19, the media have provided us with an update on the latest defection from the Deen financial empire, in the same way that they report on the ups and downs of the stock market. And since last Wednesday (June 26) the public has been told each day, as if it were breaking news, that the Court overturned a key provision of DOMA and rejected a challenge to the lower court ruling that overturned Prop 8.
However, there were other Supreme Court decisions that will have a significant impact on Americans in general, and some that will have a serious effect on Black Americans in particular. On June 24, the Court returned to the lower court the suit against the University of Texas by Abigail Fisher, a white applicant for admission who claimed that she was rejected because of her race. The court required the lower court to apply a criterion of “strict scrutiny,” requiring that the defendant (the university) exhaust all other means to a diverse student body before allowing race to be considered.
The University of Texas at Austin is the state’s “flagship,” university, the most prestigious institution in the University of Texas system. It is a selective, research-oriented, doctoral degree granting university whose degree carries high national status. Admission to the university is a step toward success and competition for a place is intense. In response to decades of pressure by advocates for racial integration and diversity, university administrators believed that they had constructed a process which would increase racial diversity while minimizing overt reference to race as an admission criterion. They are now required to return to the drawing board. But not only is the University of Texas affected by this ruling, but so is every college and university throughout the country. Every college with selective or competitive admission standards that seeks to maintain or increase (racial) diversity must reformulate its policies and practices to conform to the standard of “strict” scrutiny mandated by the Court.
Affirmative action is a difficult subject. Complex arguments have been offered for and against it. The task of placing it in a contemporary context and devising a relevant definition of the policy, its goals, and suggesting appropriate actions is well beyond the scope of this brief article. However, as we look for ways to continue the upward trend in college enrollment among Black Americans – especially Black males – and for ways to increase Black enrollment in “flagship” state universities and in selective colleges and universities generally, the issue of affirmative action remains a concern for Black parents, students, teachers, counselors, community activists – in fact, anyone concerned with the advancement of Black Americans through education.
The other area in which the Court took action that seriously impacts Black Americans is that of voting rights. On Tuesday, June 25, the Court ruled on Shelby County v. Holder, a case testing the constitutionality of the core provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Act requires that the Congress certify the jurisdictions that are subject to Federal (Justice Department of Federal Court) approval prior to any changes in their voting procedures. The jurisdictions specified in the original law were those (mostly Southern) areas where Blacks were historically prevented from voting because of statewide policies and local practices. The Court held that the law was constitutional, but that the criteria for its application must be defined anew by Congress, on the basis of more contemporary data. (Such data, however, were collected in conjunction with the renewal of the Act in 2006.)
The result of the Court’s ruling is that the Act now applies to no one. And with a House of Representatives dominated by extreme conservatives who are unlikely to support any revitalization of the Voting Rights Act, states dominated by Republican governors and legislatures are already moving ahead with the voter suppression procedures with which they had hoped to win the presidential election and capture the US Senate in 2012. These laws and policies will, if unchecked, have a disastrous affect on the ability of Blacks to vote in elections at all levels. But they will also suppress the votes of all persons residing in traditionally Democratic areas. And, in the midst of the heated political struggle over changes in immigration law, in a number of states, current and potential Hispanic voters are also targets of voter suppression efforts.
The corporate media’s coverage of Supreme Court decisions, other than the admittedly sensational rulings on same-sex marriage, has been scant and their analysis and interpretation even scantier . It is probable that few Americans know that the Court ruled that our genes cannot be patented, but that farmers can be indentured to Monsanto in order to obtain seed, or that the Court weakened workers’ ability to file discrimination claims. It is also probable that the majority of Americans – who are not Black – are indifferent to the decisions that are perceived to be relevant only to Blacks, overturning programs and policies that are understood to have outlived their usefulness and to have become anachronisms in the 21st century.
While there voices speaking out against these decisions and their potentially disastrous consequences, they are few and they occupy positions on the margins of the media messaging machinery. In the case of Black Americans, it has become unseemly to advocate for issues that have special significance for this segment of the population. In the Obama era of mythical post-racialism, we are expected to assume, as apparently does the majority of the Supreme Court, that racism has ended its reign as America’s operating system and that its lingering effects are all but dissipated. We have had our time in the limelight and our problems have been solved. We now have Oprah, Obama, Jay-Z and Beyonce. Rappers and athletes are millionaires with growing financial empires.
As for our politicians, if they expect support for their continued tenure in office – and especially if they aspire to higher office – they cannot demand anything for the struggling masses of Black people who put them in office. And now other groups are moving onto center stage in US politics, groups that have more money, more political clout with the current administration, and whose numbers in the population are surpassing those of Blacks.
The Court’s decisions have always affected Black Americans and these most recent decisions will help shape our future. And our response must be adequate to the complexity of the real circumstances in which the majority of Black Americans live. And it becomes increasingly clear that, with few allies in positions of power, Blacks must develop political leadership that can marshal the resources of the privileged among us to create institutions for our advancement while at the same time vigorously fighting in the arenas of politics and law against racism in all of its expressions. The corporate media will be of little if any help in this undertaking. For them, Black people and the events that impact Black lives share a reciprocal invisibility, eclipsed today by the Paula Deen Phenomenon, and tomorrow by the next big nonevent.