The Commercial Appeal

It wasn’t just a word that sealed Deen’s fate

- OTIS SANFORD COLUMNIST Columnist Otis Sanford holds the Hardin Chair of Excellence in Journalism at the University of Memphis. Contact him at 901-678-3669 or at o.sanford@

Once again as a society, we’ve been bombarded with real-life situations that are testing our ability to honestly discuss issues of race.

And once again, we’re failing.

The murder trial of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin is, at its core, an issue over whether racial profiling led to violence.

And t he Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling that basically gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is, at its core, an issue of whether some states can be trusted to treat all voters equally — regardless of race or political bent — without federal oversight.

But the most-talkedabou­t recent story on matters of race is the Paula Deen saga. And it’s there that we’re missing the boat on the most important element. The loudest reaction has come from the fact that Dean admittedly once used the N-word.

Since that revelation became public, some of Deen’s corporate partners — including the owners of Harrah’s casinos — have severed ties with her. And America’s best-known celebrity chef is desperatel­y trying to stem the damage to her corporate brand.

But whether Deen uttered the offensive word once back in the 1980s or it’s a familiar term in her vocabulary, is not the central issue. This all started with a discrimina­tion lawsuit filed in 2012 by Lisa Jackson, a former manager in Deen’s family restaurant in Savannah, Ga. Jackson, by the way, is white.

Key parts of the suit allege that Deen and her brother, restaurant co- owner Bubba Hiers, shamelessl­y discrimina­ted against African-American employees.

Not only did the two call black workers offensive names, the suit alleges, but they also refused to promote African-Americans and even forced them to use back entrances and separate restroom accommodat­ions.

Last week, the Atlanta Journal Constituti­on reported that other employees had told an attorney for Rainbow/PUSH that “white employees are routinely paid more than black employees and are promoted more quickly.” The story quoted a black worker who had threatened to complain to the Equal Employment Opportunit­y Commission as saying Hiers told him, “You don’t have any civil rights here.”

If true, those are the most disturbing parts to the Paula Deen story. You can believe her tearful explanatio­n to the “Today” show’s Matt Lauer that she only uttered the N-word once, or not. It really doesn’t matter. As a society, we should care less about what Deen has said about black people, and more about what she may have done to them.

Because Jackson’s lawsuit is still pending, Deen, under the advice of her lawyers, likely won’t directly address all the allegation­s of discrimina­tion.

So I’ll make up my mind about Deen’s character once the lawsuit — or any other inquiry into her employment practices — plays out.

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