Deen employees tell Rainbow/PUSH of alleged discrimination

An attorney for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition said current and former Paula Deen employees told him the famous cook and her brother discriminated against black employees, one of whom was consistently referred to as “my little monkey.”

After Deen acknowledged using a racial slur, the story went viral and the Food Network announced on Friday that it would not renew her contract when it expires at the end of June.

Deen and her brother, Bubba Hiers, are being sued by Lisa T. Jackson, a former employee who claims she endured a hostile work environment replete with racial slurs.

Robert Patillo, an attorney for Rainbow/PUSH, a civil rights group founded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., said one current and two former employees told him white employees are routinely paid more than black employees and are promoted more quickly. A black man who had threatened to go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said Deen’s brother told him “you don’t have any civil rights here,” Rainbow/PUSH said in a press release.

Rainbow/PUSH said it has “found evidence of systemic racial discimination and harassment” by Deen and that “a family member consistently referred to a black cook as ‘my little monkey.’”

Patillo, who conducted interviews in Savannah where Deen’s restaurant is located, said current and former employees told him that Deen “preferred white and light-skinned blacks to work with customers” and that darker-skinned blacks were relegated to “back-of-the-house operations.”

Patillo said employees have been reluctant to talk to him about their experience with Deen because they fear retaliation.

Deen could not be reached on Saturday for comment on the Rainbow/PUSH allegations.

She acknowledged in a deposition that she used a racial slur “a very long time” ago. CBS News has also reported that Deen said jokes often target minority groups.

“I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person,” the station quoted Deen as saying.

With social media ablaze, Deen on Friday released a pair of videos apologizing and begging for forgiveness.

“I want to apologize to everybody for the wrong that I’ve done,” she said. “I want to learn and grow from this. Inappropriate, hurtful language is totally, totally unacceptable.”

In an interview with The AJC, Patillo said Deen’s use of a racial slur isn’t the problem.

“It’s a free country,” Patillo said. “We have freedom of speech, and you can say what you want. Our issue is whether that mindset has filtered into employment decisions.”

Patillo said there are strong indications that Deen’s operation mistreats and limits opportunities for black employees.

“What we’ve found is that there has been disparate treatment,” Patillo said. “What we’d like is to have her remedy the situation.”

Those remedies, Patillo said, should include giving blacks a fair chance for employment and promotion, sensitivity training and providing an avenue of recourse for those who have been mistreated.

Responses to the Deen controversy continued on Saturday, with fans coming to her defense and others decrying her insensitivity.

On the Kelley clan’s first pilgrimage to Savannah, Paula Deen’s Lady and Sons Restaurant on West Congress Street was one of their priority stops. Debbie Kelley, a nurse, is the cook in the family. She has several of Deen’s recipe books and much of her cookware. Kathy Hanshaw, another part of the Ohio troupe, gave them to her. Debbie and her husband, David Kelley, and two children, 7-year-old Dylan and 6-year-old Madyson, had the fried chicken and banana pudding. They declared it worth the trip.

All in the party had heard of Deen’s troubles, and were withholding judgment. “I think it’s unfair until everyone knows the whole story,” said Sandy Kelley, sister to David Kelley.

“She needs fair treatment,” said Debbie Kelley.

“A lot of times, when the media gets something, it just explodes and you really don’t get all the facts, said David Kelley, who operates a plastics plant at home.

But none in the group said the language that Deen had admitted using was acceptable. “This is a different age and time. I don’t think that word should be used,” said Sandy Kelley.

Scores of people vented on the Food Network's Facebook page. On Facebook, a 'We Support Paula Deen' page had more than 128,000 likes. A 'Bring Back Paula Deen' page started at 5 p.m. Friday by Jimmy Beck, of Carrollton, had more than 1,200 likes. "I am only 20, but I know what forgiveness is. I think it's time we move away from this crazy political correctness," Beck wrote in an email to the AJC.

More than 100 people have commented in AJC's The Buzz column.

An AJC Twitter call-out netted numerous emails and phone calls.

“I don’t think Paula should ever use the N-word, but I don’t think it merited her being fired from the Food Network,” said Wilbur E. Jordan, Jr., a 28-year old Augusta resident. “I do feel her apology was heartfelt.”

Learell Faulk, 33, of Calhoun, was critical of the decision not to renew Deen’s contract.

“I understand that Food Network is a business with an image to protect and anything short of firing Paula Deen would appear to support her past mistakes,” said Faulk, who is white. “The fact that Food Network is being forced by society into this decision is nothing less than hogwash.”

Darah Cubit, who described herself as a 22-year-old black woman from the West Coast, said she was not surprised to learn that Deen had used a racial slur.

“After all, she is an older white woman in one of the most notorious slave states in the country,” Cubit said. “However, my problem is that for years the people around her had been condoning this behavior and accepting the clearly biased opinions she had communicated off camera. Her personal beliefs and biases obviously would have affected how most of her viewers, being of slave descent, support her restaurants, shows, and special appearances.”

Said Libby Middleson, of Mississippi, “I am sad that Ms. Deen has become a victim of her own behavior, but I am happy that we are at least discussing the part institutional racism still plays in our lives in America. It is my hope that we grow from this event.”

Staff writer Jim Galloway contributed to this report.