The Ongoing Case Against Paula Deen, And Why Economic Justice Is Racial Justice

Credit: New York Daily News.

Dora Charles, the woman who embattled television chef Paula Deen has described as her “soul sister,” and who helped open one of Dean’s restaurants and develop her recipes, has spoken to the New York Times about their relationship. And her portrait of her work for Ms. Deen, who paid her $10 an hour, even for a period after she hit it big on television, and added extras like making professional appearances on Deen’s cruises (Deen covered the costs of the trip, but required Charles to take vacation time), and swag, is revealing both for the terms of their arrangement, and for Deen’s camp’s reaction to Charles’ description of their relationship. The Times reports:

Early on, Mrs. Charles claims, Ms. Deen made her a deal: “Stick with me, Dora, and I promise you one day if I get rich you’ll get rich.”

Now, Mrs. Charles said, she wished she had gotten that in writing. “I didn’t think I had to ’cause we were real close back then,” she said.

That is where the two women’s stories diverge. Ms. Deen, through her publicity team, offered a statement denying all of Mrs. Charles’s accusations: “Fundamentally Dora’s complaint is not about race but about money. It is about an employee that despite over 20 years of generosity feels that she still deserves yet even more financial support from Paula Deen. ”

But it’s not as if racial justice and economic justice are separate issues. Keeping African-Americans economically disadvantaged has historically been one of the primary ways to reinforce white supremacy. Using black people as bonded labor was a way to build white economic power, while reinforcing slaves’ dependence on their owners. Sharecropping, in which free African-Americans worked land that they rented as tenant farmers in exchange for a significant share of their agricultural output, was a way of continuing that dynamic to the extent possible. Limiting the amount of crops sharecroppers could keep for themselves was a way of preventing them from recognizing profits from cash crops that might have someday let them break the cycle of trading agricultural work for use of land–and potentially to keep their profits so low that sharecropping families couldn’t even support themselves on the crops they were allowed to keep.

There are countless other examples. Redlining, the practice of keeping black and Latino homebuyers (and in earlier days, ethnic immigrants) from purchasing real estate in certain neighborhoods and attempting to cluster them together, was a means of preventing African-Americans and Latinos from accumulating wealthy by clustering them in less-desirable housing stock where real estate values were less likely to rise. Siloing non-white workers in certain professions is a way to limit the wages they can earn, and the professional advancements they can make. Deen’s decision to pay Charles an hourly wage rather than a salary isn’t just a one-off choice: it’s a way of communicating that, despite her extensive work for Deen, that Charles’ value is lower than Deen’s, and thus making it harder for her to claim credit for Deen’s success, or to spin off her own franchise from Deen’s empire.

Similarly, giving Charles items of indeterminate value is a way to avoid paying her, and shouldn’t be considered genuine compensation. Giving someone promotional items is not actually the same thing as giving her their fair economic value. Swag is not a consistent source of income, it doesn’t necessarily meet the recipient’s needs (though it often meets the giver’s need to offload things they want to get rid of), and it doesn’t give the recipient the ability to make their own decisions about what they need. It reinforces the economic gap between the giver and the receipient–things of lower value to the former are assumed to be of higher value to the latter–and creates an expectation of gratitude from the recipient towards the giver, whether or not the items are actually thoughtful or useful. Deen, it’s important to remember, is also facing allegations of wage theft: there’s been a suggestion that she asked employees to work private events for her family and tried to compensate them in beer.

Painting Charles as greedy is a logical move for Deen’s camp, and it’s likely to be effective, even though Charles told the Times “she is not expecting any money from Ms. Deen, especially not now.” But it’s an ugly approach, beyond the personal relationship between Deen and Charles. Suggesting that racial justice and economic justice are different things is an attempt to obscure the long relationship between money and racial oppression, to cover up an inconvenient history that, considered directly, would suggest that Deen and people like her owe far more than they’re willing to acknowledge.