Watching the Paula Deen controversy in the news the last few days has been a painful experience. There she is begging for forgiveness on You Tube. There is Matt Lauer asking her if she is a racist, and asking if her apology is all about damage control for her business interests. And then there are those business interests, hemorrhaging from the loss of endorsements, retail distribution through Wal-Mart, and at least one television contract.

paula deenSo what caused all this? It appears that the only thing that is clearly verifiable is Deen’s admission to using the “N-word” after being threatened by a black man in an attempted bank robbery some thirty years ago. She is currently being sued, along with her brother, for alleged racial and sexual discrimination against a former employee.

I don’t know whether Paula Deen is a racist or not. There is a sense in which it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that she’s been accused of being a racist, and that she has admitted to committing what has become the new unforgivable sin: She used the “N-word”.

The charge of racism is an easy one to make and, once it’s made, nearly impossible to disprove. It’s a little like the charge of being a witch in Salem in 1692. If you admitted to witchcraft, you might be executed. If you denied you were a witch, once accused, you’d likely get executed anyway. And if you refused to make a plea, as did the unfortunate Giles Corey, you were punished with “an archaic form of punishment called peine forte et dure…” which resulted in Corey’s death after two days.

In addition to being extremely difficult to disprove, the charge of racism is one of the worst possible accusations that can be made against someone nowadays. Many would probably rather be called a liar or a thief than be called a racist. This is why we are seeing such a grave reaction from companies associated with Paula Deen’s brand. It isn’t that these companies are more morally pristine than the rest of us with regard to race. It’s because they are absolutely petrified by the prospect that a brand they promote may get permanently tagged with racism.

There is much more to be said about all of this, but suffice it to say that we should be alarmed at how little it takes for someone’s person and livelihood to be trashed so quickly. And there is no statute of limitations on the new unforgivable sin.

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