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Can We Forgive Paula Deen?

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Progress comes in fits and starts. Looking back this July 4th on our nation's progress in overcoming racism, it's clear that it follows the same jerky pattern. The latest wrinkle, simultaneous with the George Zimmerman trial, is the symbolic lynching of Paula Deen. With all the media coverage, how many of us have really heard the pertinent facts?

In a deposition, pirated by The National Enquirer, that icon of professional American journalism, Deen reportedly admitted that 30-plus years ago she used the "n" word, Most probably, she recalled, in describing to her husband how she was robbed by a handgun-bearing black man.

She also acknowledged that she looked the other way to an idea floated by her brother and restaurant business partner to staff, in true ante-bellum plantation style, black men and women as waiters and waitresses at a wedding. Regarding her brother, she asked, "Do humans sometimes behave inappropriately? Yes, we all do." As to her use of the "n" word, she asked, "I beg you. I beg for your forgiveness... I want to learn and grow from this." Will we let her?

The bigger question this Independence Day is how can we all grow from this? Can we declare our independence from racism? And in the process, could we -- should we -- forgive Paula Deen?

Racism has a long and sordid history and rootedness in America. Even before our founding, our settlers and founders endorsed and used African-American slavery as the basis for their lifestyle and economy. Lifestyle needs morphed into a rationalized philosophy about the inferiority of black people and, despite the values of dignity, equality and pursuit of happiness that our founding documents embodied, racism was justified. Even the Supreme Court, in its 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson landmark decision validated racist divisions as "separate but equal." Many of our country's otherwise thoughtful leaders were mistakenly locked into racism.

Especially in the South -- and Paula Deen is a product both of Southern cooking and Southern culture -- it's not surprising that long-time habits and justified lifestyle would stick with someone raised in a separatist environment. Culture rubs off on all of us, and exclusion is naturally a part of the human DNA. Recent studies with toddlers have shown that humans gravitate to people who are like them and even support bullies who are mean to people who are different from them. Not surprisingly, to this day, in many diverse high schools even in the Northern states, blacks and whites still self-segregate, sitting with their "like-looking" friends in the cafeteria. I'm not condoning, just explaining.

When you're fitting into a culture, it's also easy to look the other way. Just four years ago, many Americans and the media railed against Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his prophetic-styled ranting, unfamiliar to many but rooted in the civil rights and protest movements, about America's deficiencies. People called him racist. But as we discovered more about his true intentions and heritage, many Americans forgave him. We also forgave a then-presidential candidate -- now President Barack Obama -- for sitting in the pews, listening to the rants, and looking the other way.

Now, race is back in the news. This time it's a white celebrity locked into another cultural time warp. From corporate sponsors dumping her to commentators ridiculing her Today show interview, Paula Deen is the bait in a feeding frenzy that may be titillating but doesn't get us any closer to eliminating racism.

When will we as a country be able to move beyond the blame-game to a more substantive discussion about our values -- who we are, what we stand for and how we ought to treat each other? A discussion that transcends race and embraces our shared humanity. One that focuses on our progress rather than our failures. And one that includes even the latent racist in an open dialog.

It may be that the way we overcome racism is to start forgiving racists who have changed their ways. Not the KKK-style racists, but those who may have been exposed to an intolerant culture or family. The son of Polish Holocaust survivors, I grew up with deep resentment at my parents' many Polish neighbors -- and even the U.S. government -- that stood by while Jews were being massacred. Across my many trips to Poland, in the interest of moving forward, I chose to forgive them and their descendants.

Our country in large part has forgiven Bill Clinton, Elliot Spitzer and Tiger Woods for cheating on their wives. We forgave Martha Stewart for insider trading and Lance Armstrong for doping. We forgave many corporate leaders and iconic corporations for indiscretions. We forgave our government for Vietnam, and we will likely forgive them again for NSA snooping. We forgive Congressional leaders everyday for partisanship, incivility and not doing their job, although they're noticeably unrepentant and their transgressions are more recent. So why not a seemingly repentant Paula Deen?

Paula Deen said, "Your color of your skin, your religion, your sexual preference does not matter to me." I believe her. And I appreciate her honesty. It's through her kind of honesty that America can grow and move forward, having had that honest conversation about how to close the gap between our vision, values and actual performance.

Not just for her sake, but also so that we can move beyond race to embracing our shared values that unite us as Americans, we should forgive Paula Deen. If we are being true to our values, it's the right and American thing to do.

Purple America is a national initiative of Project Love/Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialog around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.purpleamerica.us.