Papa John’s CEO Was Banished Because He Is A White Man Who Talked About Race

Michael Meyers | President of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and former assistant national director of the NAACP

I am no fan of pizza or television commercials, but I am partial to the defense of free speech as an absolute American right. For most of us, that is a right unprotected from abridgement by law, because the First Amendment only prohibits the government from infringing on our free speech rights.

And that leaves Papa John’s pizza founder John Schnatter out in the cold — and out of his once-cushy corporate offices. Schnatter couldn’t mount a plausible defense for his using the naughty “N” word in a sensitivity training conversation. To those who heard him say the “N” word, immediate offense was taken and protests emerged which forced Schnatter’s resignation as chair of the pizza company he founded. His board of directors pushed him out – -without the benefit of even a hearing, much less a bill of particulars. That’s what happens when a corporation sees its profits dip over its top spokesman and chairman’s free speech exercise — when, in the judgment of the directors, the utterance of the “N” word is an unforgivable blunder.

That’s the crux of Papa John’s Pizza mogul John Schnatter’s fall and demise notwithstanding his tongue-twisting apology and explanation that he used the “racial slur” in the course of an educational experience, not as, as he put it, how what Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders used the “N” word when he openly talked about blacks. Colonel Sanders was spared retribution and rebuke; his nigger talk was of a different era, after all. Corporate culture and racial etiquette, in that bygone era, the two never met. Not now. Not in this time of never uttering the word that will banish any white man from the company of decent citizens.

John Schnatter could not even cite the example of Mark Twain as a defense; in too many jurisdictions the anti-racist Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been banished because its pages bring us the story of a friendship between Huck and the endearing “Nigger Jim” character. John Schnatter is no Mark Twain. And Mark Twain is no longer the unassailable much less indisputable anti-racist he once was in the eyes of even the overly sensitive blacks and whites who cringe upon reading page after page the “N” word in a culture of modernity they know that does not countenance the use of racial slurs, however well-intentioned.

John Schnatter is no racist. Despite his protestations to that effect, and his mighty contributions, financial and other, to charities, and his service on public, university and corporate boards, Schnattercan’t seem to catch a break or have his reputation as a good guy restored–not given everything he has ever said or tweeted about the effrontery of black football players not standing for the National Anthem and in seeming agreement if not solidarity with the likes of Donald J. Trump, he whom the Left regards as a hard-nosed racist.

Once the word got out that he had did not spell out but uttered the despicable “N” word, Schnatter’s corporate colleagues, fellow board members all, did not want to hear any more from him. No explanation in or out of context was necessary or acceptable to them. So, they fired him — or, more precisely, they required him to resign his position as chair of Papa John’s Pizza. His pizza pie career flattened in the oven of public furor. The corporate titans there are not the audience that is receptive to full-throated apology, although Schnatter offered it unabashedly. The corporate audience isn’t as malleable as viewers of Papa John’s TV ads–indeed, Schnatter had thought he had devised the right recipe for a comeback so beloved and dominant were his TV presence as the pizza company’s top ad spokesman. The Papa John’s corporate board members are not the lovers of free speech per se. Theirs is the audience that resents blowback and when it comes to holding a billionaire accountable for racially insensitive or offensive speech in our tense and polarized times. Their eyes are on the bottom line — money, honey, which makes the pizza pie salable; that’s what the corporate giants figured were more valuable than saving their founder from the dustbins of discredited exile over his unconscionable use of the one word that has become taboo in modern linguistics and conversation and even in classic literature.

The Papa John’s board of directors’ loyalties lie with public opinion and reputable corporate citizenship, not with free speech values.

Roleplay has its merit, and I have used the N word myself in sensitivity training with students and adult audiences. But I am black, and John Schnatter — oops, he forgot — is white. And lest anyone doubts it, being black has its privileges, while being white and sounding off on racial matters is the biggest risk any corporate mogul can take. So, without a hearing, John Schnatter was banished from Papa John’s because he is a white man who came off to his colleagues as a racial dilettante. By golly, Schnatter was taken aback that he could be labeled a racist and driven out of his position and then evicted from his plush corporate office over a slip of the tongue that was not meant as a slur but as an example of changing times.

Schnatter was shown the door and told not to let the doorknob hit him on the way out.

One would think that John Schnatter will land on his feet. That there has to be an audience out there some place for the ribald and the offensive in the field of sensitivity training. No? Maybe not. Not on our campuses, where controversial speakers are protested and banned who use perfectly good and respectable words to explain their distinctive but “errant’ views on political and civic and racial issues. Ditto in schools that have deemed the donning of some Halloween costumes as “cultural appropriation”. In most workplaces today, moreover, employees and employers are cautioned to avoid off-color remarks which are, nowadays, deemed “hurtful” because they offend someone’s skin color or gender or religion. Unlike the days of my youth, when blacks and racial minorities learnedfirst-hand the adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me”, mere words–especially the N word–today are deigned by so many black leaders asindeed harmful. The NAACP years back even conducted a funeral dirge for the burial of the N word–not that even the NAACP persuaded black rappers and youngins to stop using the N word in music and casual conversation. It’s a word that other youths use everyday with and to each other, regardless of their skin color. But that is not the discourse that is acceptable corporate-speak. In big business and small, the N word is banned. And users of the N word are banished.

In today’s culture, in modern America, Mark Twain would be perished, not published for any book that lionizes a black man named Nigger Jim.

Not even the ACLU will come to the aid of the avowed anti-racist who uses the N word to teach or preach cultural sensitivity. That once free speech organization now has “guidelines” to pick and choose which free speech cases to take on–making the distinction between outrageous political speech and weaponized speech directed at and which hurts the feelings of racial minorities. Thus, our culture as a free speech society is on the wane. In fashion nowadays is labeling people with whom we disagree and then naming and shaming them as racists or reprobates because their ideas are offensive or because their speech is filled with cultural and racial inensitivities. Speech that offends any pressure group’s sensitivities is likely to be targeted for boycotts against the TV or radio pundits’ advertisers, or have mobs demand the return of an offensive donor’s funds if not the removal of the billionaire’s name from a college building as was the case with John Schnatter’s name from the building at the University of Louisville. No monument, no statue, no plaque is safe from the bulldozers of the censors and pressure groups that demand ideological purity and obedience to the rabblerouser’s racial drum.

Even billionaires like John Schnatter cannot afford to make verbal gaffes in this anti-free speech world of ours. Even if they earnestly use the N word in context or are innocently reading from a great book, the sensitivity police can render them unemployable, overnight.

The censors are prevailing and making a mockery of our free speech values. Lost and forgotten is the adage, “Let a thousand tongues wag, the truth will be uncovered.” The advocates of social change and for racial justice are impatient; they know they are prevailing; they prefer to ban and not rebut speech with which they disagree–and to push off and ban the offending speakers to boot. Nervous Nelly American corporations are following the fault lines of faddism; they perfectly understand that there is scant legal protection for errant, “racist” speech in the free market of private industry. In our nation’s private work places, pungent, distasteful, repugnant thoughts and expression that come in the form of tweets, slips during conference calls, or open hostility to political correctness, are likely to invite boycotts and driving off of our airwaves everyone and anyone who offends the sensibilities of the most organized and powerful censors and pressure groups.

If what we say can be taken out of context or put in the censor’s context, our free speech society is doomed. And that is why I side with John Schnatter who says he is not a racist, whom I believe that what he said in using the N word was taken out of context and was not intended as either malicious or as a racial slur. The man apologized, anyway. Ironically, as he proclaimed there should be no quarter for racists at Papa John’s, the board of directors took that as an invitation to clobber the Papa John founder. He never figured that people of sound mind, people who knew and work with him, would nonetheless label and exile him as a reprobate, even as he assured them, and us, that he is not a racist. Ah, but there lies the victory of the censor — there is no defense to the implausible — only banishment for the poor sucker who quips as a joke, aside or wisecrack a sentiment that goes viral.

Michael Meyers is president of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, headquartered in Manhattan.


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