In Leviticus 16 the Priestly source (P) tells us about a day of atonement, where the communal cleansing of the guilt and shame of sin was sent off into the wilderness in the form of a goat; a goat that was anointed with the community’s sin, sent running into the woods; which makes this imagery representative of the one’s sin being launched out, cast away, done away with. Of course another goat was also sacrificed at the meeting in order to appease God.
This first goat, the one sent into the wilderness, is an example of the process of scapegoating that René Girard would expound upon; and I am in a shockingly rare mood where I will take up this Girardian notion of the scapegoat in order to offer a sobering critique of the way we, in the West, have come to deal with systematic racism, using events in 2013 as the components of this illustration.
Earlier this year, world-renowned cook, Paula Deen, came under fire due to a revelation of her (20 years) younger self. She had apparently, two decades ago, called one of her black workers a ‘nigger’; this is obviously upsetting to many. Her comment was out of line and racist, of course. It is clear that she was socialized into a racist (however subtle) worldview, as a Southerner in a bitterly nuanced post-civil war status. There is no excuse for what she said, and shouldn’t be. But, here we see Leviticus coming to life, for she becomes White America’s goat, the one whom gets sent off into the dessert. For America demonstrates her exquisite intolerance for race and racist speech. The hate crime police are deployed and next thing one knows, her cookbooks and kitchen supplies are on discount racks at Wal-Mart. Is it right that she be called out on her racism? Absolutely! But what happens next?
Months later, a Floridian neighborhood watchman is on trial for murder charges, as he shot a young (unarmed) black male, (allegedly) in self-defense. You see, what happened was Trayvon Martin was merely out in a suburb talking to his girlfriend on a cell phone. This alerted Zimmerman, for Martin was three things. He was black, wearing a hood, and outside (in the public eye) past dark. So, like any good authority, Zimmerman peruses the young man, despite orders from local authorities not to. After approaching Martin, uncertain altercation outbreaks, which ends in Martin lying dead; Zimmerman shot Martin, I remind you, in self-defense. The Court finds Zimmerman NOT GUILTY and he is released back into his life, with his gun, and a pat on the back. Not too much later, he is making headlines again for threatening more people with a gun—just so you are aware that his violence transcends this one occurrence.
The American Public was outraged by this verdict and of course the media patronized Zimmerman and victimized his existence—poor Zimmerman now has to be cautious because some mean liberals or blacks (both culturally demonized) will attack him or seek personal vengeance. This is very troubling because if Trayvon Martin were to have been a white teen, wearing a polo tee, talking on his otterbox protected iPhone 5 in Zimmerman’s neighborhood, it is likely that he wouldn’t have been profiled to begin with; but assuming he was, assuming (as I think we can judging by Zimmerman’s recent incidents) this bleached Martin was pursued and shot, the court’s handling of the case would have been exponentially different. A dead white teen, shot in Floridian suburbia would have been an abomination and it is likely Zimmerman would have been put on death row.
This all to illustrate that, returning the Leviticus 16, Paula Deen becomes the goat we place all of our guilt and shame on, as a society or group (as is in Leviticus), in order to excuse our much more subtly racist legal system. By our society calling out and crucifying certain figures like Paula Deen that can be tokenized as directly and blatantly racist, exclaiming slurs or mistreating black employees, etc., we are free to excuse our self from the reality of our racially unjust society at large. Our society can still be racist, as the Israelites could continue to sin, precisely because we damn racism (in it’s obvious forms), as we do sin. If Paula Deen was removed from the picture, if we had no white people saying racial slurs, then we would have to face the fact that our entire legal system is intrinsically discriminatory.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of celebrities (as evident with Phil Robertson) willing to make racism remarks in order to keep us from reckoning with the entirety of our systematic racism.