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By Dean Obeidallah
(CNN) – Once a racist, always a racist? Will bigots always be bigots?
Or can people truly evolve over time for the better? And if they do, should we applaud their metamorphosis and welcome them back?
The easy answer — as we are seeing with Paula Deen — is to quickly label the person a racist for past insensitive remarks and cast her out to the fringes of society. But that’s not the best answer for our nation.
I say this as a person who has been called racist slurs on numerous occasions. I’m of Arab heritage. I have an inbox full of e-mails from people calling me things like “sand n—-” or telling me “Go back to where you are from.” (Which, I should note, is New Jersey).
I’m also a Muslim, and I don’t even want to describe here the litany of hate-filled insults that have been directed at our community and myself. The worst part is that these slurs don’t come just from ignorant bigots who can easily be dismissed, but often by elected officials and even religious leaders.
But I will say this — if a person who had called me a “sand n—-” later expressed remorse and sincerely explained that they now understand it was hateful and wrong, I wouldn’t respond with: “Too bad, you’re a bigot for life.”
Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t invite them over for dinner, either. However, I would cautiously applaud their change of heart and hope to see it evidenced by not just an apology, but by deeds as well.
And I would do this not just because they did the right thing by me, but also because they did the right thing by our society. They were evolving for the better and this in turn makes us a better nation.
Our country’s history is filled with examples of people’s views changing over time for the better — the most recent example being on the issue of marriage equality. Polls now show support for same-sex marriage is at between 51 and 58%. But just 10 years ago, only slightly over 30% of Americans supported it.
If 10 years ago supporters of marriage equality dismissed all those who opposed gay marriage — or who had even had used derogatory terms about gays — as bigots incapable of evolving, we never would have seen the new acceptance of marriage equality by mainstream America.
We also witnessed America evolve for the better regarding interracial marriage. In 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws that barred interracial marriage in the famous case of Loving v. Virginia, 73% of Americans actually supported such laws. That wasn’t a Red State-Blue State divide. The mainstream American view at that time was that blacks and whites should legally be prohibited from marrying each other.
When did a majority of Americans finally begin to accept interracial marriage? The late 1990s — almost 30 years after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision.
Paula Deen recently admission that she used the hateful “N word” to describe a black man back inthe 1980’s. But could Paula Deen — as she has claimed — have evolved over the past 30 years for the better? It’s possible. Former President Jimmy Carter believes so, noting that Deen’s programs in Savannah, Georgia, benefit “almost exclusively oppressed and poverty-stricken black people.”
And as of the writing of this article, no one else has publicly come forward to say that Deen has used racially insensitive words in recent years. If she is still using racist and bigoted words, I would expect to see at least one other person substantiating such a claim.
On the other hand, Deen’s assertion on the “Today” show earlier this week that she only used the “N word” one time in her life is so ridiculous that I believe it made her situation even worse — especially since at her recent deposition she appeared to admit having using it more times in the past.
Can Paula Deen change? Of course she can, just as others have changed their views on issues of race and marriage equality. Clearly it will take more than a few tears on a morning show and a disjointed apology to prove that to us. But in time, if she and others like her do evolve, we should applaud and embrace them. As the Rev. Jesse Jackson stated this week about Deen: “She should be reclaimed rather than destroyed.”
Certainly if someone is spouting racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic or Islamaphobic comments today, they deserve the punishment they receive — be it losing their job of being cast from mainstream society to the fringes to wallow with the hate mongers.
But let’s not close the door on their redemption. If we do, our nation will be frozen in its progress forward on societal and racial issues. And that would truly be unforgivable.
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