July 2, 2013 9:54:45 AM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
I've been thinking a lot recently about Paula Deen and Martha Liddell and the strange phenomenon that ties the two together.
Both have been in the news recently -- Deen on the national stage and Liddell here in Columbus.
Deen, a popular TV chef, cook book author and restaurateur, has been caught up in a wave of negative publicity generated by her deposition in a court case. In her sworn testimony she admitted that she had used racial slurs, told racists jokes and even promoted the idea of a plantation-themed wedding in which her black employees would dress and act as though they were slaves.
Rather than deny the charges made against her, Deen's attitude was singularly cavalier. Until, of course, she began to lose endorsements, at which point the sincerity of her apologies grew as her empire crumbled.
Interestingly, we are seeing a wave of support for the embattled chef these days, particularly on social media. Somehow, the slur-spewing Deen has been transformed into a victim.
Liddell, the Columbus Municipal School District superintendent, was fired by the CMSD Board of Trustees on June 17 in the wake of reports she had used district funds and personnel for her own private use, performed consulting work in violation of her contract and spent an inordinate amount of time away from the district at a time when the schools are mired in academic mediocrity.
Even so, there have been some portion of the black community in Columbus who have rallied around Liddell despite the well-documented evidence of her misconduct. Like Deen, Liddell has become some sort of victim.
How is it that Deen and Liddell have flipped the table from offender to victim?
Strangely, I believe that the 25 years I spent in the world of sports journalism, provides some insight into that odd dynamic.
I call it the fan syndrome and if you have ever been a fan of a team, especially a college team, you are familiar with how it works.
For illustration purposes, let's say there is a college called Mississippi Tech. Mississippi Tech is a major university with a big-time football program and a big-time fan base. In that fan base, you find many who are so devoted in their support of the team as to be blind to its faults. So, if the Tech football program is exposed for a major rules violation, those die-hard fans will embrace every possible explanation, excuse and rationalization to absolve their team of guilt.
They will minimize the offense (It wasn't as serious a charge as people are making it out to be.). They will distort the charge (What happened was really a minor incident that has been blown out of proportion?). They will argue it is selective punishment (Why punish us when the other school did the same thing and didn't get punished?). They will attack the motives of those who have leveled the charges (This whole thing was a fabrication made up by our rival school.). They will scream that the punishment does not fit the crime (Even if we did something wrong, the punishment is excessive.).
They will do everything, of course, but consider the facts.
In both the Deen and Liddell cases, we are seeing similar arguments.
With Deen, her supporters have characterized her offenses as being "something she said 30 years ago." Some have argued that black rappers have used derogatory terms to describe white people and gone unpunished. They have argued that it is unfair to ruin Deen's career for offenses that aren't that serious.
With Liddell, the argument has been that Liddell's use of district resources was a very minor affair, really more an innocent mistake than anything else. They argue that the previous supervisor didn't fall under similar scrutiny. They will also argue that the whole case against her is racially-motivated.
What is never really discussed are the actual facts. It is not that the evidence is ambiguous or inconclusive. The documentation to support each charge has been provided.
Even so, some people are too emotionally connected to the team -- be it Team Tech, Team Deen or Team Liddell -- to acknowledge error and the accountability that goes along with it.
In Deen's case, it might be easy to assume that those who support her are simply closet racists. It is tempting to assume Liddell's apologists labor under a similar prejudice.
But if that's true it either case, I suspect it is true only to a small degree. The majority are simply blinded by misplaced devotion that cannot permit honest scrutiny. Anyone in the black community that wants to bring the facts into the discussion is thought to be disloyal.
In Liddell's case, there are those who see a false equivalence: Any unflattering reporting about a black official is an attack on the black community as a whole and is, therefore, inherently racist.
A certain portion of the black community in Columbus feels The Dispatch's reporting on Liddell has been racially-motivated. It is a charge we categorically deny. There is no credible evidence to support such a claim.
The black community of Columbus deserves to be represented by officials who ascribe to the highest standards of conduct and character.
In that sense, exposing the misconduct of a black official is not racism.
It is the antithesis of racism.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]