Why Supermarkets Are Powerful Flash Points In Racial PoliticsRoundup
tags: racism, African American history, inequality, redlining, consumer goods, supermarkets, consumer activism
Tracey Deutsch is associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of Building a Housewife’s Paradise: Gender, Government, and American Grocery Stores, 1919-1968, which won the 2011 Best Book Award from the Association for the Study of Food and Society.
James McElroy is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Minnesota. His dissertation examines the history of supermarkets and U.S. cities from the early 1960s through the ‘80s.
In recent months, grocery stores have become sites of clashes over mask-wearing. In some cases, videos of customers (nearly always White customers) who refuse to wear their masks and harass employees and other shoppers have gone viral. In Minnesota, a couple insisted on their right to wear masks with swastikas. These episodes speak to the ways stores have become spaces to assert White privilege and autonomy.
It is no surprise that consequential, racially charged battles are happening in grocery store aisles. Historically, grocery stores are key, if underrecognized, nodes in the history of racism and violence in the United States. Food, an object we so often imagine as bringing people together, has been a consistent backdrop for policing and assault of Black people in particular. Recognizing and addressing this is key to eliminating racism from day-to-day American life.
Consider that early in the summer police were summoned to Cup Foods after George Floyd allegedly tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes — and he died.
His case shares the same origin point with some of the most explosive cases of lynching and police violence in American history; many of these emerged from the seemingly simple act of buying or selling groceries. Ida B. Wells’s anti-lynching campaign was sparked by the murders of an African American grocer and his employees. The lynching of Emmett Till in August 1955 came after he purportedly whistled at the White grocer’s wife. And Trayvon Martin died at the hands of George Zimmerman after Zimmerman thought he looked suspicious while walking back from a convenience store with Skittles and iced tea in 2012. Less famous but no less meaningful recent incidents — for instance, the deaths of Elijah McClain and Rayshard Brooks — also were occasioned by food purchases or visits to restaurants.
Food has long been used as a tool for advancing White supremacy and colonization. For Africans and African Americans, the history of food can’t be untangled from the history of slavery. Beginning in the 17th century, plantations in the Americas used the labor of enslaved Africans to turn sugar and rum into global commodities.
Even after the end of slavery, stereotypes of servile African American cooks, maids and children permeated food advertising. These images reinforced the idea that Black people’s relationship to food properly consisted of serving or amusing White people. The needs of people of color for food were treated as, at best, laughable and at worst as a way of forcing submission. Hunger was a weapon.
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