Guilty of Being Southern
Media and academic elites prefer to focus on the old South while a new one marches on.

Paula Deen talks with "Today" host Matt Lauer.


Lee Habeeb

Over the years, my African-American friends have shared with me stories of the senseless traffic stops they’ve endured for nothing more than driving while black. There’s an acronym for it: DWB. They admit it happens less than it used to, but it’s wrong, it’s bad, and Americans should not face a presumption of guilt for being who they are.

Which is why Paula Deen and the recent U.S. Supreme Court case involving the Voting Rights Act make for an interesting counterpoint. Both stories involve what’s perhaps the last socially acceptable form of bigotry left in America: bigotry against the South. It’s a brand of bigotry reinforced by our nation’s biggest media outlets — and by justices on the Supreme Court.

Let’s start with Paula Deen, who admitted to having used the “n” word — 30 years ago. If it had been, let’s say, Alec Baldwin instead, the media would have quickly given him a pass, because, after all, he’s one of them. Alec is a media guy. He’s smart and talented and thinks what they think about life. He’s also a northerner. He was born on Long Island! And my God, there’s no racism there.

Racism is a disease people catch when they cross the Mason-Dixon line.

Paula is from Georgia, and from that one slip, which she admitted and for which she apologized, was imputed all kinds of guilt. She was guilty of being born Southern, plain and simple. And the punishment she’s facing is so disproportionate to her three-decade-old lapse that it cries for someone in the media to defend her. No one has. No one will.

The Food Network will soon learn that their knee-jerk decision to fire her without any proof of discrimination, any proof of a racist past or present, will backfire. And fans who know she was fired, and canned by sponsors, for being born in the South, and for being proud of it — they’ll be waiting for her return, and will reward the network that hires her.

That brings me to the ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. What the Supreme Court essentially told the nation in that case was this: The states in the South used to do some really bad things a long time ago when it comes to elections, but they don’t anymore, so we are taking them out of the penalty box and treating them like any other state. As Justice Roberts said succinctly for the majority, “History did not end in 1965.”

It turns out that the decision by the court last week came less than a year after an African American was reelected president for a second term, an election in which African-American turnout in the southern states was well above the national average. Moreover, African Americans in the southern states registered at higher rates than did white people in those same states.

Mississippi, my home state and once the worst of the Jim Crow offenders, had the highest rate of African-American turnout in the nation. And Mississippi has more elected black officials than any other state. Not just more per capita — more, period.

Judging from the hysterical reports in the media, and from the headlines of the lead editorials in America’s biggest newspapers, someone could have easily concluded that the court had overturned the entire Voting Rights Act, not just one provision — and that it was now open season for white racists in the South to bring back poll taxes and literacy tests and to make a push to return not to the 1950s but to the 1850s, to slavery itself.

“An Assault on the Voting Rights Act,” shouted the headline of the New York Times editorial.

“A setback for voting rights,” declared the Los Angeles Times.

Where did the media elite’s sense of outrage come from? It’s simple, actually. To admit that the South had changed would mean letting go of their own cultural and moral superiority, of their sense of regional superiority with respect to the issue of race. Media and academic elites believe that, but for proper adult supervision, the South will return to its racist roots and that they alone can protect helpless black southerners from the perfidy rooted in white southerners’ DNA.

In his questioning from the bench back in February, as George Will pointed out, Justice Breyer revealed not only his distrust of southerners, but his disdain: “Imagine a State has a plant disease, and in 1965 you can recognize the presence of that disease. . . . Now, it’s evolved. . . . But we know one thing: The disease is still there.” Breyer’s disease metaphor was not only crude and condescending, it was rank regional bigotry — and from a sitting Supreme Court justice, no less.