A lot of ink has been spilled and a lot of digital bits and bytes have been created over Paula Deen's situation and her use of the 'N-word', as she says "a long time ago."
The furor has been over whether she used the word (she clearly has), and the lawsuit filed by a former employee of one of the restaurants she runs with her brother, Bubba that alleges significant sexual harassment and racial discrimination.
From the moment this went national, Paula Deen has been a walking PR disaster. She posted a couple of cryptic YouTube videos "apologizing" for the hurt she's "caused to a lot of people," and then asking for forgiveness, putting a lot of the blame on the press and how they are characterizing her family to the public.
She clearly thought that her awkward videos and canceled public appearances would be enough to smooth things over and get back to business. It wasn't enough, and her PR team should have been more forceful in implementing a more effective pubic outreach strategy.
Instead of running from Matt Lauer, she should have been running TOWARD him; answer every question (no matter how tough) honestly and with empathy. She should have admitted her mistakes and flaws, settle the lawsuit, make very visible changes in her organization and its policies and personnel and work to rebuild her reputation.
Instead, she blamed the press and its coverage. That press coverage has focused almost completely on her use of the the N-word; nothing I've seen really asks if there is a pattern of discriminatory behavior by Paula within her empire.
To me, this is the real question that needs to be answered. Did she use racial epithets at some point during her 60+ years of existence? Of course she did. Paula grew up in the deep, deep south (can't go too much further south than Savannah, Ga.) where the use of derogatory terms towards black people were as common as "pass the butter."
I get that. She said it. She's admitted she said it (at least once, although I suspect it was many, many times). Nearly everybody has said it at some point in his or her life, during private conversation, perhaps in a moment of frustration or as a part of a joke.
As distasteful as I find the word and its use, it is free and protected speech. People can say what they want about anything they want. It's the number one American freedom (although gun rights advocates may argue differently).
But, did the sentiment that is connected to the word – that somehow, black people are inferior, or hold a lower social importance than white people – perpetuate itself within Paula Deen's deep fried empire?
In the eyes of Rainbw/PUSH, the answer is yes. An article that ran in the Huffington Post about the situation begins to explore that question through interview with current and former employees of Paula Deen. Robert Patillo, an attorney for Rainbow/PUSH sums it up nicely: ""We have freedom of speech, and you can say what you want. Our issue is whether that mindset has filtered into employment decisions."
Based upon the descriptions by the former and current employees to Rainbow/PUSH, there is clear evidence that there was a two-tiered system of employment between blacks and whites.
Some of the allegations sound outrageous in 2013 (calling a cook, my little monkey? Separate bathrooms for black and white employees?), and others sound plausible simply because they are NOT outrageous (limited promotion opportunities for black employees).
Clearly, a pattern is emerging from the Paula Deen universe that signals that when the television lights are off, everything isn't down home country good.
She is clearly the best example that actions speak louder than words. While she promoted a personality that everything was just peachy-keen and fun because she was cooking comfort food for us. The public went into a food coma and made no effort to look and see if the real Paula was different than the on-screen Paula. She wasn't.
The fallout that's happening to the Paula Deen empire is appropriate for the ridiculous behavior that has been brought to light. Much like Lance Armstrong fell from public grace when he (finally) admitted to doping during his entire cycling career, Paula Deen is also falling from grace as sponsors and media partners pull away.
It's unfortunate that people in positions of influence and celebrity sometimes ignore the basic rules of society about treating people who work for them equally and with dignity. Paula Deen failed to do that and she failed to keep her brother in check so he wouldn't do it. And now she's paying the price in the court of public opinion; and possibly in the court of law.
Let's hope she uses this as a teachable moment and grows as a person because of it.