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The Long Road to Societal Change

Measuring racism is not always a clear dichotomy. Not every attitude or word spoken is either clearly "racist" or "not-racist," to put this another way. There is a spectrum. The good news is that the spectrum shifts over time. What was once considered acceptable becomes taboo. Attitudes shift, even if it takes generations.
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This is a post about Paula Deen, racism, and the upcoming gay marriage decisions from the Supreme Court. But mostly it's an article about the long, slow road to true changes in American society. The beginning of this road always starts with the prevailing casual acceptance of bigotry and prejudice in everyday life, and the road doesn't end until society as a whole reaches the point of near-universal condemnation of a way of thinking which used to be widespread and unremarkable.

Paula Deen is currently in the news for her racist language and racist thinking. She is a television celebrity chef, or at least she used to be before her show was unceremoniously cancelled last week. What brought this on was a deposition taken in a court case where Deen is being sued by employees of her restaurant. In it, Deen admits to using racist language, specifically saying the "N-word." Other stories are coming to light about her general attitudes on racial relations, both in the present day and in the antebellum South.

While there are plenty who are condemning Deen over what has so far been reported, there is also a groundswell of support for her, using what could be called the "older Southerners will be older Southerners" defense. Deen, this explanation tells us, comes from a different generation and therefore was raised in a different world than that which exists today. Those condemning Deen counter that this should not matter, since (to give but one obvious example) Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech will celebrate its 50th anniversary later this year. How long does the woman need, for Pete's sake, to realize times have changed?

But times change slowly, as always. When Paula Deen was a child, she was surrounded by a culture that found it quite natural and acceptable to have separate drinking fountains and schools for different races. That's the world she grew up in. Racist language was, assumably, considered within the bounds of polite conversation and was frequently heard by Deen.

I state this not as an attempt to excuse Deen, mind you. I point it out to highlight the bigger picture and the larger implications. Jim Crow and "separate but equal" is still a part of what historians call "living memory." There are still people alive who clearly remember when times were quite different. Their attitudes, in fact, may have formed during these times -- and subsequently hardened into mental cement before the times did change.

Casual racism has been almost eradicated from popular culture -- loosely defined as what it is acceptable to say on a primetime television show. You can quibble with that definition, but it will serve for now: what television networks will allow on the air without being terrified at a possible backlash towards them or their advertisers. Traveling back 40 years or so, a lot of what was allowable on All In The Family would never make it on the air today, to put this another way.

All In The Family had a point to make, though. Archie Bunker was portrayed as a man of his times, but also a man behind the times (that were a-changin'). The character was used to expose the ugliness of casual bigotry, and to educate the public why such things should no longer be seen as acceptable attitudes. Bunker was both sympathetic and abhorrent at the same time -- one reason for the show's popularity. A lot of Americans were struggling with such concepts at the same time the show aired. The message was that the ideas that Archie saw as perfectly acceptable were going the way of the dinosaurs. Some got this message. Some didn't. Some, even 40 years later -- long after Archie Bunker's chair got a permanent home in the Smithsonian -- have still not learned the basic lesson.

Even today, measuring racism is not always a clear dichotomy. Not every attitude or word spoken is either clearly "racist" or "not-racist," to put this another way. There is a spectrum. Even the "N-word" is still hotly debated today, usually over whether rappers should be using the term (or "reclaiming the term" as some suggest) or not.

The good news is that the spectrum shifts over time. What was once considered acceptable becomes taboo. Attitudes shift, even if it takes generations. When the court case Loving v. Virginia forced the end of laws banning interracial marriages, the public was actually overwhelmingly against such marriages being allowed. Today, the public overwhelmingly approves of such marriages, and would be horrified if anyone suggested a law banning them again.

Not everyone's attitude shifts, of course. There are still a substantial number of people living in America today who are still against interracial marriage and who wish states still had the power to ban them. But this attitude is disappearing, slowly.

What people have to remember is that there are some people who are capable of changing their thinking and there are some who are not. What used to be acceptable to say or joke about in public is no longer treated with nervous laughter, but denounced. Some people who formerly held bigoted views truly evolve to tolerant thinking and see the error of their ways. Another group of people don't really change what they believe or think, but are at least aware enough of changing attitudes among the general public that they will confine saying their jokes and slurs only among those they're sure share such views -- in other words, they say things in private that they never would in public, because they know what the likely reaction would be. They learn to hide their attitudes, but the attitudes remain in place. And then there are those who don't ever learn that society has changed, and can still be counted on to make everyone cringe in polite company (the stereotypical drunken, ignorant family member at the reunion). People who are proud of their unreconstructed nature, in other words.

Now, I have no idea which category Paula Deen should be placed in, nor do I care much (I don't watch cooking shows, and have never met the woman personally, so it doesn't affect me in any tangible way precisely how bigoted she is or may be). I'm more interested in the present and the future than the past, truth be told.

Which is where the upcoming Supreme Court decisions become relevant. America has gotten to the point where even the opponents of gay marriage are all but conceding its inevitability. I make no predictions as to what the rulings later in the week will say on California's Proposition 8 or the federal Defense Of Marriage Act. But, whether it happens later this week or takes another ten years or more, when even the opposition is grudgingly conceding that gay marriage is going to become reality sooner or later, more than half the battle has really already been won.

The times, on gay marriage, are indeed changing. The spectrum of what is allowable in the conversation has already shifted dramatically. Take a look at the anti-gay-rights language being used back in the 1990s and what is being said today, to prove this point. The rhetoric of the Westboro Church "God Hates Fags" hatemongers wasn't all that far outside the mainstream of political discourse back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but today the extremism of such proud bigots must make even anti-gay-rights politicians cringe. That is a tangible shift.

Of course, the shift is not complete -- Paula Deen shows how the shift on racism still isn't complete and may not be for another generation or so. Which is the real reason I felt compelled to write about the subject today. Sooner or later, gay marriage will become a reality across America. There really will be no looking back, at least legally, at that point. But culturally, even though the spectrum on gay bigotry has measurably shifted already, it still has a long way to go. Even if the Supreme Court gives gay rights advocates everything they want this week, this will still be true.

The road to full acceptance isn't going to magically end in an instant. We're not all going to be transported to the end of the road even when gay marriage becomes the law of the land. There will be those who continue fighting a losing battle against it for a long time to come. There will be those who will indeed evolve their thinking. There will be others who just quietly accept that the subject is no longer acceptable to speak of in certain ways (at least in public). But there will be those whose thinking will never change. They will cling to their prejudices until the day they die. Forty or 50 years from now, perhaps some spokeswoman for flying cars on some 3-D stereovision show will say something bigoted about gay marriage and get fired for it. Nobody should be surprised when this happens, because although cultural attitudes do indeed shift over time, sometimes it can take a lot longer than anyone expects before it disappears entirely from the scene.

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