Racially charged controversies have dominated mainstream media for the last two weeks. First was the Paula Deen fiasco in which the cooking show host has been exposed as being a good ol’ fashioned racist. I don’t know exactly when that story broke because I don’t really care about it (I’ll explain why later in this post). Second, on June 24th, almost 1 ½ years after Trayvon Martin was killed, George Zimmerman’s murder trial finally commenced. The trial has been major news everyday since, with several networks offering live feeds and much scrutiny and criticism piled upon Rachel Jeantel, the young woman on the phone with Trayvon while he was pursued by Zimmerman. On the same day that the Zimmerman trial started, the Supreme Court ruled to send an affirmative action case back to a lower court in a move that was not a total loss for affirmative action proponents but could lead to some major loses. Finally, the next day, the Supreme Court neutered the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The media has not covered these four stories evenly. Zimmerman and Paula Deen’s faces have been plastered and projected on front pages and lead segments while the Supreme Court rulings received cursory attention initially and seem to have almost completely faded out of the news media’s collective memory already.
I don’t want to suggest that the Trayvon/Zimmerman and Paula Deen sagas aren’t important or newsworthy; they are and deserve to be covered. Americans should know that a household name like Paula Deen is a straight up racist and doesn’t seem to understand why her racism isn’t charming or slightly amusing. I won’t be buying any of her cookbooks. I probably wouldn’t have anyway but now I definitely won’t. The George Zimmerman trial is clearly way more important than the Paula Deen stuff. A life was taken. Zimmerman should be held accountable for his actions. What is more, Trayvon Martin is a powerful symbol. His murder was a headline grabbing example of the daily reality of young, black death and a painful reminder that black life is seen as expendable and generally undervalued. To focus exclusively on Zimmerman and Deen and brush the Supreme Court rulings under the rug, however, is easy and convenient at best and manipulative at worst.
George Zimmerman and Paula Deen are individuals. For various reasons, their actions have had larger societal implications and are surely significant for all black people, but their racist acts are examples of individual racism. No policy changes will come about as a result of the Zimmerman trial or the Deen drama (unless Trayvon is invoked in the gun control debate). The Supreme Court rulings, on the other hand, have immediate ramifications for all black Americans. They are examples of institutional or systemic racism and the ways that government and the powers-that-be subtly but persistently keep certain sectors of the American citizenry subjugated and marginalized. The court rulings are important but they haven’t received anywhere near the amount of scrutiny that they deserve.
First, it’s just easier for the news media to talk about Paula Deen and George Zimmerman. A racist guy who kills a black kid or a racist woman who calls black people “nigger” is a simpler story than one that attempts to explain the significance of Sections 4 and 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act or explores the meaning of “race-neutral” admission criteria in a 21st Century context. I took a journalism class in 11th grade. The teacher was a former newspaper reporter. He told us that as a newspaper writer he was instructed to write for a readership with a 7th grade vocabulary and that USA Today was the best selling newspaper because it had the most pictures. Most news is dumbed down and blurbified as much as possible. That’s easier to do with George Zimmerman and Paula Deen than almost any Supreme Court decision.
Secondly, it’s convenient for the corporate media to turn a blind eye to institutional racism. A central strategy of the new racism is to act like racism no longer exists. That’s hard to do when Texas is now free to enact a racist voter ID law and redraw it’s legislative districts in a way that will dilute black and Latino votes. Focusing on stories like Deen and Zimmerman instead of the Supreme Court allows neo-racists to say, “Yes , there are a few individuals who harbor racist views, but our system and society as a whole operate in a fair, equitable, and colorblind way.”
Thirdly, focusing on individual racism serves as a distraction or diversion from bigger issues. The Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act on Tuesday. Instead of reading about it the next day we watched Paula Deen stumble and bumble through an explanation for her statements and actions on the Today Show Wednesday morning. We righteously want Zimmerman and Deen to be held accountable but we can be lulled to sleep by their ignorance if we’re not careful.
Finally, by publicly shaming and punishing George Zimmerman and Paula Deen while at the same time sweeping the Supreme Court rulings under the rug, the establishment is actually able to present itself as racially progressive. “Yeah we’re closing black public schools and eliminating programs that allow black students to get into college but look how seriously we’re taking this Zimmerman trial!” “Okay, a lot of black southerners might find themselves unable to vote in the next election but at least they won’t cook rhubarb pie using a recipe from a racist cookbook!” It’s easy to punish an individual. By publicly attacking Deen and Zimmerman with one hand, the corporate ruling class can pacify the black Left by convincing us that they really are proactive on racial issues while quietly eroding our rights with the other hand. Wal-Mart can do everything in its power to union-bust and keep its employees poor and divided but it appears progressive when it drops Paula Deen products from its shelves.
Again, I’m not trying to say that the George Zimmerman trial and the Paula Deen drama aren’t important; they are and they deserve attention. But compared to the Supreme Court’s affirmative action and voting rights decisions, they’ve been receiving a disproportionate amount of media coverage. Hopefully the black community is not completely distracted as other significant events unfold.