There is a strange unplanned irony to history. Events that relate to each other often occur simultaneously. In this case, the not guilty verdict of George Zimmerman is paired with the public disgrace of Paula Deen. Both offended public sensibilities by reminding Americans of a time thought to be long passed. In Zimmerman’s case it was the days of extra-legal lynching and in Deen’s the days when a kind of “cracker-culture” ruled the South and was admired by mainstream Americans.
Deen’s is accused of brazenly employing the n-word when talking to an African-American employee of her restaurant chain. he accusation was quickly taken up as true because of multiple instances in which Deen employed racially-charged language to mock skin color difference on air and when she publicly imagined how a “true Southern plantation-themed” wedding might look. Less discussed, but perhaps more troubling, is Deen’s uncomplicated appropriation of Southern food as “white food,” part of some fantasy about the “cracker-culture” of the Old South. In fact, Southern food is a contested notion which requires more than a little acknowledgement of the contributions of African-American innovators.
Why should Deen be criticized for all of this? Because it offends? Because it makes corporations queasy about the image they are presenting? I would argue that the reason Deen should be opposed is because of the connections her approach makes with a particular events in American history. An important part of why such racially charged language is wrong is that it connects directly to the use of violence by whites. This is the language that encouraged, protected and built a consensus around the idea that things like Jim Crow laws and lynching were an acceptable part of American, and especially white American, life. In a situation in which African Americans continue to disproportionately experience harsh oppression that is connected to long term social and economic racism, such ideas are indeed dangerous.
The danger of such white fantasies was brought to life by the murderous hands of George Zimmerman. Zimmerman murdered 17 year old Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012. Martin’s murder is a classic example of an Old South lynching brought into the 21st century. To understand this, it is important to keep in mind that the vast majority of African-Americans who were lynched in the Old South were killed because they violated white expectations of black deference. Terms such as “uppity” or “insolent” were frequently employed as a way to talk about the victims of lynching. In Zimmerman’s case the language used during his 911 call is 21st century code infused with lynch culture consequences – “these assholes, they always get away.”
Martin’s refusal to meet Zimmerman’s unstated criteria for black deference is precisely what resulted in his murder. Old South lynching was the same. It was never just about Jim Crow, it was about policing the cultural rules that supported “cracker culture” in the Old South. However, the enforcement of this process required that all of the institutions in the society collaborated in the scheme. The local police needed to be hands-off when necessary. The local courts needed to follow the informal rhythms of lynching society. And even the local churches needed to accept that the violence and terror perpetrated by whites could be reconciled with the notion of being upstanding God-fearing members of the community.
These categories of an Old South lynching are offer parallels with the lynching of Trayvon Martin. The police did not apply a drug or alcohol test to Zimmerman when he was taken into custody on the night of the shooting. They then, according to since fired Sanford, Florida Police Chief Bill Lee, wanted to carry out an “objective investigation” into the shooting which included releasing Zimmerman from custody. Yesterday, the judicial system did its part by delivering a decision worthy of the most disgraceful lynching courts of the Old South. Finally, as we know from the innumerable reports on it in the media, Zimmerman was a “former altar boy,” “a serious Catholic” and “very religious.” In short, Zimmerman, not Martin, was a fine upstanding member of the community. The murderous trio of the lynching days – the police, the courts and the church – is made whole again in the form of the modern-day lyncher George Zimmerman.
Paula Deen and George Zimmerman. Are they icons of a New South that looks an awful lot like the Old South? Ideally, they would be focal points for regaining some of the Civil Rights ground that has been lost and, more optimistically, to piece together a new movement that picks up the call for the kinds of economic and social justice that the Civil Rights movement was calling for when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died at the murderous hands of an assassin in 1968. Immediately, we should mourn the loss and cry out for justice for Trayvon Martin. Perhaps Joe Hill advice of “don’t mourn, organize,” might be a more constructive response.
Trayvon’s murder and the release of his murderer without charges will remain an open wound in the history of America — a time when the Old South reached into the 21st century. A sign that the present is much more like the past than anyone would like to admit.