Saturday, January 16, 2010

When what's offensive shouldn't be offensive anymore

They say you are never too old to learn, and this week, Denver Public Schools taught me something I never would have learned otherwise. Denver schools taught me that Paula Deen, our beloved Miss Paula, is a bigot. So, for that matter is Colonel Sanders and Savannah's Mrs. Wilkes. And don't forget Popeye and Mr. (or Mrs.?) Church. They are all virulent racists bent on perpetuating an old and devastating stereotype. For that matter, so am I, at least according to Denver's educators, or perhaps more accurately, the parent of one Denver student.

Last Friday, in honor of Martin Luther King, Junior, Denver schools decided to offer their students a "Southern" meal. Yes, "Southern-style" chicken and collard greens. Denver schools issued a lengthy apology for its insensitivity after receiving a mountain of complaints from hundreds, nay thousands of outraged parents, who immediately organized a march from.....oh, wait a second. They did so after getting complaints parent. Only one, and she wasn't any ordinary parent. This speaks volumes about what used to be a degrading stereotype of African-Americans.

The negative depiction of African-Americans and foods such as fried chicken and watermelon goes back almost as far as when the first black slaves were forced to come to this country. They began to fade somewhat during the civil rights movement of the 1950's and '60's, and since then have only resurfaced every so often courtesy of a few ignorant people. One of the most recent examples was golfer Fuzzy Zoeller, who referred to Tiger Woods after the '97 Masters this way, "He's doing everything it takes to win. So, you know what you guys do when he gets in here? You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it." Zoeller then smiled, snapped his fingers, and walked away before turning and adding, "or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve." Zoeller apologized, but as we now know, Tiger was probably too busy in the back seat of his limo to notice the whole kerfuffle.

So from an historical perspective, it might be easy to see why the Denver schools menu would cause offense. The only problem is that, for some reason, it didn't apparently cause offense to any African-American parents or any black school officials. The one and only person who raised the ruckus was a white parent of a kindergartner, Jennifer Holladay. Fine, you say. A parent has a right to complain if the school system does something they don't like, and that is true. However, we then learn that Ms. Holladay calls herself an "anti-bias educator." She is the former director for something called Teaching Tolerance, which is an offshoot of the Southern Poverty Law Center. That means that, whether or not she was legitimately offended by the Dr. King menu, her complaint has to be marked with an asterisk.

The Southern Poverty Law Center was founded in 1971 and was once a great organization, helping to bring Ku Klux Klan members and other legitimate bigots who got away with murder and other crimes during the Jim Crow era to justice. However, a perusal of the SPLJ's "Klanwatch" blog these days finds that it is virtually indistinguishable from places like There are many crackpots on the conservative right to be sure, but the folks at the SPLJ these days seem to think that everyone who doesn't agree with the crackpots on the left are members of "hate" groups. I suppose one does what one can to stay relevant when your original mission has just about been completed.

If there had been more complaints other than those of Ms. Holladay, perhaps one could take them more seriously. The problem is that Ms. Holladay's "job" as an "anti-bias educator" goes away unless she can continue to find bias behind every nook and cranny, just as the SPLJ apparently thinks it will disappear unless it becomes a nut job organization. The Denver school system did not wake up one day and think, "hmmm, how can we offend some people today?" They thought they were doing a good thing. The president of Denver's school board, Nate Easley, Jr. said it best in his response. "As a black man, the things that offend me more is how we are doing with kids in the district," he said. "It's not having kids graduating and doing well. The outcomes of the district are more offensive to me than someone trying to do the right thing and being offensive. If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was alive today, I think he would be more concerned about our outcomes of our students than what they are eating to honor him."

It is 2010, more than a year after we elected a black president just four decades after Dr. King's death, long before Dr. King thought something like that would be possible. How much does it say about how far we have progressed that one of the most delicious meals in the world is not seen as an invidious attack by African-Americans but only by someone who has a vested interest in "racist" behavior? Can we please enjoy our soul food in peace? It is almost a certainty that most folks, black and white, love fried chicken (and some of us love the collards, too), so I hope Ms. Holladay look the other way when we chow down. Otherwise, we'll have to break out the tacos. Oh wait a minute, Mexican stereotype. Ah, there's a ham in the freezer. Nope, offends the Jews. Some matzo balls? Aw, what the heck is the North American Matzo Preservation League?

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