Look, I think the Paula Deen controversy is more theater than news. The only people who need the information that there are still white people in the South who are horribly racist are John Roberts and his band of conservatives. Deen is awful, but I don’t have a lot of spare outrage to waste on a television fry cook.
There is, however, a really interesting and novel legal argument being launched by Paula Deen and her attorneys. I think the argument is arguably just as racist as anything Deen actually said, but that doesn’t mean it’s legally incorrect. Deen’s lawyers are saying that white people, namely the white plaintiff suing Paula Deen, don’t have standing to claim a “hostile work environment” if all Deen did was run around saying awful things about non-whites.
And her lawyers are now using the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the constitutional challenge to California’s Proposition 8, as the basis for their objections…
You can be forgiven if all you know about this case is “Paula Deen, Racist, #PaulaDeenBestDishes.” The lawsuit that gave rise to Deen’s career-altering deposition was filed by Lisa Jackson, a former employee who is suing Deen for creating a hostile work environment based on racial discrimination and sexual harassment.
Lisa Jackson is white.
It’s not obvious to me why that matters. It seems to me that a white person can be made uncomfortable, in a legally actionable way, if her boss is running around talking about “tap dancing little n***ers.” Sure, you don’t very often see a white person suing because another white person is racist. But I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t. Nobody should have to work for a racist like Paula Deen, and I don’t see why a white person shouldn’t have the same legal protection in the workplace in that regard as a racial minority.
Of course, the world I would like to live in and the world that I do live in are not always the same world. Paula Deen’s lawyers are arguing that Jackson doesn’t have standing to sue Deen on the racial elements because she’s white. Deen first made this standing argument a week ago. From her motion to dismiss:
Now, the defense is citing the Roberts opinion in Hollingsworth v. Perry to buttress their claims:
Well now that’s interesting, isn’t it? If the argument is that Jackson is suing on behalf of black people (and Jews, and Asians, and whoever else Deen allegedly offended) everywhere, then I think the defense has a really good point. As a general rule, you can’t sue somebody for harm they allegedly caused to someone else.
Of course, if it’s as simple as “white people don’t have standing to bring this kind of claim,” then why didn’t Deen’s lawyers move to dismiss this case before they let Deen deep-fry her career in that deposition? If Deen’s lawyers are right about this, then they are also the worst lawyers in the universe for letting their half-baked client get roasted.
That’s why I don’t think Jackson’s argument is that simple. I don’t think Jackson is saying Deen created a hostile environment for minorities and Jackson is suing on their behalf. I think she’s saying that Deen’s racism created a hostile environment for her.
If you are a white person, and your boss is a racist a**hole, do you just have to take it? Do you just have to grin and bear it and play along for fear of being labeled a “n***er lover”? Is it our official position that white people cannot be put in a hostile work environment as long as the boss is just making fun of minorities? Are white people immune to being legally discriminated against if all they have to do is ignore the racism all around them?
Don’t look now, but out of this Paula Deen fiasco, a really interesting and fundamental question about our legal definition of racism is going to be decided. Can whites be personally harmed by racism towards non-whites? I say “yes.” I think it’s obvious that they can be. How many white people don’t speak up about racism in their environment for fear of retribution from the racists at their places of business?
But in Paula Deen’s world, if you are white and there is racism happening around you, that doesn’t concern you. I guess she’d like people to prove that they are a minority (one eighth?) before they can claim that discriminatory behavior causes them professional harm.
And that seems to me to be way more racist than just saying the N-word.
Lawyer in Paula Deen case says white plaintiff had no standing to pursue race claims [ABA Journal]
Paula Deen Using Supreme Court’s Prop 8 Ruling To Get Discrimination Suit Dismissed [Hollywood Reporter]