What Paula Deen and Eva Longoria’s Devious Maids Taught Me About DOMA, the Voting Rights Act, and Affirmative Action or What I Said on NPR

Yeesh. Who would think that Paula Deen who butters even her Melba Toast and Hollywood star Eva Longoria, the Executive Producer of Lifetime‘s Devious Maids could teach me a thing or two about this week’s historic Supreme Court decisions? SCOTUS deemed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional, allowing for same-sex couples to marry and enjoy the legal and economic benefits and protections of this institution. The justices gutted the Voting Rights Act, arguably the most significant piece of civil rights legislation that forced states to remove barriers to our constitutionally protected right to vote as I write in Who The Supreme Court Protects with the Voting Rights Decisions. They left these protections which I saw jeopardized this past election with the onslaught of voter ID requirements to Congress (!), yes our paralyzed, gridlocked Congress. On affirmative action, the nation’s highest court punted again, back to the lower courts.

It’s within this political and social pipin’ hot sancocho that the Food Network celebrity chef was canned for using the “N” word as revealed in a court deposition. Social media exploded, with accusations of Deen being a pre-Civil War Southern racist. Drama followed: apologies, TV cancellations, and tears. Sponsors dropped her like a hot papa.


Smithfield is one of several lucrative endorsements that bid Deen adio’. Courtesy: AP

Then there’s Longoria’s Devious Maids, an ABC reject, which debuted to OK ratings, with the season finale of Mad Men winning a third more ratings. Critics pounced on Longoria, denouncing her backing of two of the most powerful stereotypes of the Latinas–maids and sexpots (the third, “reverse racist” was hatched during Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination and confirmation which I covered for ABC News), as well as the advocacy community’s support. She is after all, a big donor.


Viviana Hurtado & Eva Longoria at the 2011 NCLR Latinas’ Brunch Courtesy: @WiseLatinaClub’s @VivianaHurtado

Our outrage and attention are misplaced. For years, the Food Network and a constellation of brands supported Deen’s retro and pristine vision of America. Yet underneath the gentility and white gloves lurked an ugly darkness rooted in a history of discrimination, oppression, and violence. Despite its claims to show an evolution of the characters, Devious Maids reinforces stereotypes not out of mean spiritedness but because it lives in a larger media context where there simply are not enough Hispanics playing a diversity of roles that we are increasingly seeing in real life. For example, in Longoria’s native deep South Texas where I started out my reporting career, Latinas are maids but also district attorneys, county judges, school district superintendents, and doctors, a complexity I try to capture in this website that is absent in media and politics.

But we are still sidetracked. The real issue isn’t Paul Deen or Devious Maids. It’s that “very important people in positions of power”–in municipal, state, and federal government–believe that people from diverse backgrounds are inferior and, for example, can’t be trusted to vote honestly cast ballots or are “taking the place” of a white job, college, or graduate school candidate. This judgment and distrust is at the heart of the restrictive voter ID laws and largely contribute to the challenges to affirmative action (although it is true that class and not just race or ethnicity-based admissions criteria can strengthen this policy).

I interviewed civil rights living legend and co-founder of the United Farm Workers Dolores Huerta who told me:

Today we tweet but tomorrow we march.

Let our real and virtual indignation turn away from the latest pop culture mind freeze and to the legislators who are trying to roll back our hard fought rights. Let our ability to set a trend on fire in the Twitterverse turn into millions of people participating–marching but as important, voting in off-year local elections and as a constituent, calling and emailing your representative.

Paula Deen and Eva Longoria have the power to shape perception. Our daily, committed participation has the potential to improve access to the institutions that improve our lives.

These topics were discussed on NPR’s Tell Me More with Michel Martin as part of the “Beauty Shop” roundtable of female journalists and thinkers. Joining me were Bridget Johnson, Washington editor of the conservative, libertarian PJ Media, Danielle Belton of the politics and pop culture blog The Black Snob, and Jane Delgado, Ph.D., M.S. President and CEO of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health.

Click below to hear this broadcast which aired on June 26, 2013.

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