Tag Archives: activism

Sambo’s Restaurant: Rise and fall, with Ithaca and Santa Barbara

The sociologist David Pilgrim, in an essay on the “The Picaninny Caricature” for the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, tells the story of the Little Black Sambo:

Arguably, the most controversial picaninny image is the one created by Helen Bannerman. … She spent thirty years of her life in India. … In 1898 there “came into her head, evolved by the moving of a train,” the entertaining story of a little black boy, beautifully clothed, who outwits a succession of tigers, and not only saves his own life but gets a stack of tiger-striped pancakes. The story eventually became Little Black Sambo. The book appeared in England in 1899 and was an immediate success.

At the time, the book was not the most racist thing out there:

Stereotypical anti-black traits — for example, laziness, stupidity, and immorality — were absent from the book. Little Black Sambo, the character, was bright and resourceful unlike most portrayals of black children. Nevertheless, the book does have anti-black overtones … The illustrations were racially offensive, and so was the name Sambo. At the time that the book was originally published Sambo was an established anti-black epithet, a generic degrading reference. It symbolized the lazy, grinning, docile, childlike, good-for-little servant.

I learned from Pilgrim that Julius Lester co-authored an Afrocentric retelling of the story in 1996, Sam and the Tigers. Pilgrim quotes Lester:

When I read Little Black Sambo as a child, I had no choice but to identify with him because I am black and so was he. Even as I sit here and write the feelings of shame, embarrassment and hurt come back. And there was a bit of confusion because I liked the story and I especially liked all those pancakes, but the illustrations exaggerated the racial features society had made it clear to me represented my racial inferiority — the black, black skin, the eyes shining white, the red protruding lips. I did not feel good about myself as a black child looking at those pictures.

These are the covers of Lester’s book and a 1934 version.

Ithaca, 1979

I didn’t know any of this at age 12, in 1979, when Sambo’s Restaurant opened up in Ithaca, NY, my hometown. The chain of restaurants was started in 1957 by Sam Battistone Sr. and Newell Bohnett (get it, Sam-Bo’s). Despite a growing clamor to change its racist name (the interiors of the restaurants were also decorated with images from the story), Wikipedia says there were more than 1,100 outlets by that time. Here’s their 1980 TV commercial, featuring a White child with his divorce-era single dad, saving money because of inflation:

In Ithaca, anyway, there was a boycott movement. Maybe someone still has their orange “Boycott Sambo’s” bumper sticker; I can’t find mine. We canceled that shit, and the company declared bankruptcy in 1981.

Here’s a story from the Ithaca Journal, November 26, 1979:

IJ-sambos

A couple things are amazing about this, to me. First, the reporter Fred Gaskins (who is Black). Right around that time, must have been seventh grade, I spent some time (a day?) shadowing him under an apprenticeship-mentoring program called The Learning Web (still there!), because I wanted to be a writer. (News reporting was my first job after food service, in 1985.)*

Anyway, the other interesting thing in this article is Newstell Marable, the company’s Black regional community relations manager, who is running down the protesters and talking up the company’s hiring record. “The name is not demeaning to me as a black man,” he’s quoted as saying, noting that 12% of the local restaurant’s 50 employees were Black, while Ithaca was only 5% Black.

Marable died at age 84 in 2015, in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. When he died, the Pottstown branch of the NAACP, of which Marable had been president (not clear which years), picked up his Sambo’s story:

Employed as Sambo’s Restaurants, Inc. Regional Marketing Manager for the Eastern Coast, he was their EEOC Officer and Community Relations Manager from 1980 to 1982. Mr. Marable shared racial sensitivity with the management and persuaded them to change the name from Sambo’s, a name with racist overtones, to Seasonal Restaurants.**

Noting his commitment to “public service, fighting poverty, and equal rights through jobs, housing, education, and health,” the chapter biography remembers Marable, a graduate of Alabama A&M and an Army veteran, with these moving words:

He bestowed blessing through a life filled with many rolls of service to others both at home and in the larger community. For countless people of all ages and walks of life, Mr. Marable demonstrated true leadership by serving others with integrity and courage. He mentored from personal experiences; guided with knowledge and insight; advised with wisdom; emphasized with true understanding; chastised with living kindness; battled courageously for justice while seeking truth and showing integrity; and encouraged many with endless patience.

(With his Sambo’s history, would Marable be memorialized as a “civil rights leader” today?)

Santa Barbara, 2020

Anyway, the Sambo’s Restaurant chain went away one way or the other. Except for the “first and last-standing” Sambo’s Restaurant, in Santa Barbara, California, which finally, only after the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests this summer, changed its name. After a brief stint as [Peace] & Love, the owner (Sam Battistone’s grandson, Chad Stevens) changed the name to Chad’s, because “I knew it was time to change.”

The KEYT news report on the name change, bizarrely, says: “the name, however, had been interpreted as racist, as was the book about Little Black Sambo, an Indian boy, the restaurant had connected with.” And shows these totally not racist images on the wall:

chads

Whatever you want to tell yourself, Chad Stevens. The report quotes local activist Rashelle Monet as “involved in name change.” She wrote on her Instagram account: “I’ll never forget this moment. I could literally feel something inside me awaken.”

The history runs through us.


Next day addendum: On account of doing no lit review, I just found out sociologist Karyn Lacy wrote an essay about Sambo’s last week. I should have linked to it. Feel free to post other relevant things in the comments.


* Here’s a story on the restaurant renaming from 1982. I don’t know if Marable’s role in that decision is documented anywhere.

** Gaskins went on to a long career in journalism, and now works in communications for the city of Hampton, VA.

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Two talks on public sociology (with audio)

I gave two talks at the American Sociological Meetings in New York City this week. I recorded them and removed some of the ums for you here. They’re each less than 11 minutes.

The first was in a session titled, “Tools for Communicating Sociology Outside the Discipline: What Works, What Doesn’t Work, and What’s Promising,” organized by Chris Uggen and presided over by Paul Calarco. I was following talks by Lisa Wade, Rashawn Ray, and Gabriel Rossman, Eszter Hargattai, and Sarah Lageson (some of whom you’ll hear mentioned). This is mostly about interacting with the news media.

The second talk, later the same day, was about the debate over activism in sociology. I think it paired well, and there are some themes in my talks that overlap. The session was titled, “Scholarly Activism in and for Sociology,” organized by Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra and including Daniel Laurison, Margaret Weigers Vitullo, and Fabio Rojas. This was after ASA President Mary Romero’s speech the night before, which she called, “Sociology: Engaging with Social Justice,” and I start by discussing that.

I recommend recording your talks (these are just phone recording) even if you’re not going to share them. It can be excruciating but also good for improving your public speaking. Also if I said anything really wrong I might want to correct it publicly. And sharing them is good for people who couldn’t be there.

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I don’t give activists unsolicited advice, except: don’t talk to the police

I have previously criticized universities and news outlets for their handling of racism on and around campus (and sexual assault, too). But I’m not in the business of giving activists advice. So I’m speaking out of turn on one side point here, to recommend: don’t talk to the police. (Nothing personal.)

The campus police at UW have released body camera video of them escorting a student from class and arresting him for allegedly spray-painting anti-racist graffiti. (For critical commentary on this situation, here’s a statement from faculty at staff, including a bunch of sociologists; and a letter of support for students from the faculty and staff in Afro-American studies.) Several things are disturbing about this; I’d like to call attention to the conversation. Here’s the video, with my comment below:

(Other videos from the police department, showing other parts of their interactions, are here.)

I have no idea whether this man has broken any laws, and know nothing about his motivations. I’m also not against spray-painting statements in public spaces in all cases; it may be effective and justified, for example in this case at the University of North Carolina:

ssgraf

Sometimes good people do illegal things, for good reasons, and we shouldn’t be surprised when activists get arrested for it. But that’s not relevant to this point, which is just that there is no good reason to talk to the police in a situation like this — at least no good legal reason (there may be good political or other reasons).

From the moment the cop says this (at 1:00), he’s lying continuously:

Alright, man, here’s what’s going on today. We have some information… Is it you, or is it somebody else, because I have information, I just want to get your side of the story…

This is such a generic statement that there’s no need to consider the facts of this situation. He does not want to get your side of the story, he wants to arrest you and make it easy for a prosecutor to get a conviction in his case. This is the clearest real-life example I can remember of this crucial lesson: don’t talk to the police. This is not unique to activists, everyone should know this.

If you aren’t one of the 6 million people who’s watched it already, I highly recommend this video (especially if you, like many activists, are at heightened risk of arrest and prosecution).

Of course, standing up to a trained, armed, police officer who has done this many times is difficult, and I assume I would blow it (again), but I think the more you prepare yourself for the possibility the more likely you are to pull it off.

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What if Reason didn’t write the NYT coverage of Oberlin students?

 

1989 Michigan Daily poto by Robin Loznak.

Daily Beast columnist Robby Soave is also a staff editor at Reason, according to his Twitter profile. Here I’m comparing his column from Dec. 20, “Oberlin College Students: Cafeteria Food Is Racist,” with a Dec. 21 news article in the New York Times, written by Katie Rogers, “Oberlin Students Take Culture War to the Dining Hall.”

Soave’s opening:

University dining halls aren’t exactly famous for serving gourmet dishes, but Oberlin students say their meals aren’t merely bad—they are racially inauthentic, and thus, a form of microaggression.

Rogers’s opening:

Some students at Oberlin College are taking their demands for diversity and racial inclusion to the dining hall, asking for more traditional meals and criticizing what they consider poor efforts at multicultural cooking.

First, the facts from Soave, in order:

  • Oberlin student with Japanese name, quoted in Oberlin Review, complained the sushi was inauthentic.
  • Oberlin student with Vietnamese name, also quoted in OR, complained that banh mi sandwich was inauthentic.
  • Oberlin tuition is $50,000
  • Fredrik de Boer snarky tweet about General Tso chicken not being authentic in the first place.
  • Black students (according to document linked, “obtained by Legal Insurrection,” a right-wing activist site) are demanding “safe space” for Black students.
  • Black students also demand Black psychologists and non-Western healers at the counseling center.
  • Black students also demand pay for organizing time. Offending community members “banished” (Soave’s word), and four buildings renamed.

Here are the facts from Rogers’s story, also in order:

  • Black student union “earlier this month” protested lack of response to an earlier petition for more traditional food, “including more fried chicken,” as reported by Oberlin Review.
  • List of complaints from the other OR story, including banh mi, sushi, and General Tso chicken. Same quote from Japanese-name student, attributed to OR.
  • Quoted statement from Oberlin dining services director.
  • Fredrik Boer tweet.
  • Response from dining services conglomerate.
  • Black student demands (same link to right-wing source): “segregated safe spaces” (Rogers’ paraphrasing of Soave’s critique), plus demand for increase in Black student enrollment.

Rogers added the next day’s worth of news to the story. So that’s the news. But the whole existence of the story is based on the Soave piece. The Vietnamese student complaint is from a story dated Nov. 6; the Black student dining hall protest was reported Dec. 12. As for the mysteriously-linked Black student demands, they were posted a week earlier by Legal Insurrection, who admit they don’t know who wrote them or who they represent, and their source for the document is anonymous. Nice reporting, NYT.

Look

People have been telling student activists to get off their lawns since they invented lawns. The criticism just varies between national-security-threat tear-gas them off the lawn and liberal disdain kids-these-days get off my lawn, depending on the context and climate. The difference is whether they spank (gas, arrest, surveil) or merely mock them for abusing their privileges when they should  be thanking their betters. Neither Soave nor Rogers nor any of the many who shared and copied the story cared to get the actual story from the actual actors involved. This is not required (by editors or readers) when all you’re doing is reinforcing the already-known sorry.

You wouldn’t know from the Soave/Rogers story that the Black student demands also include benefits for part-time dining hall workers, as well as better pay and benefits.

Of course, if the students are concerned about racism they could spend their energies instead just protesting the giant national racist movement that is leading one of our two political parties, and therefore presumably simply be ignored by the NY Times. But the transition from annoying spoiled brats to national security threat is surprisingly easy to make — when the story is owned by the national news media. Rogers could have written her story about the students’ explicit anti-imperialist rhetoric and tied it to the San Bernardino “self-radicalizing” story instead. The stretch wouldn’t have been much further.

When I complained that the Times was highlighting the fried chicken demand instead of the labor demand, Judith Shulevitz tweeted, “They kinda set themselves up for that one. Gotta pick your battles.”

But it’s not that simple.

DEPLORABLE PLAGIARISM CHARGE UPDATE

When I first saw this story I immediately linked it to the Daily Beast story, which I had been arguing about the previous day. When I saw how similar they were, I tweeted this:

I said it would be plagiarism in a class paper, because the main idea and most of the facts came from someone who was not acknowledged for that contribution. I honestly don’t know what constitutes plagiarism in journalism, but in my line of work such writing is unacceptable. In response, Patrick LaForge, who describes himself as senior editor of the NYTimes Express Team,* objected with three tweets (in reverse order):

laforge

My argument really is not about plagiarism, it’s about the news coverage – the story itself, the sources, and the writing. It is true that the NYTimes story did link to the Soave piece, but not in a way that gave any credit for all it contributed. I don’t see that as dispositive. Soave also tweeted that he “didn’t have a problem with the story,” which is nice. I guess he cares more about his influence whipping up the national hysteria about kids on the lawn than about getting individual credit for his work, which is admirable.**

* No disparagement intended by “describes himself”; I just couldn’t find this information on the NYTimes website.

** Of course, criticizing the NYTimes is all fun and games until you enrage an editor, and then it’s like, “Dude, I didn’t mean anything by it … you’re still gonna quote me, right? We’re good?”

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University paternalism and the outwardly-focused student movement

I’m not going to join  the criticism of the students at Yale, because I don’t know all that they’re going through. From a distance the symbolic things (like emails about Halloween costumes) that spark massive reactions often appear out of scale. Straws that break camels’ backs appear weightless.

So just two thoughts to share inspired by recent events.

Universities shouldn’t be in this business

A lot of people were taken aback by the casual way that Black students refer to Nicholas Christakis as the “master” of Silliman College. That archaic paternalism is not just linguistic.

I’ve previous argued that, although they do have legal and ethical obligations to respond to sexual assault on campus, colleges shouldn’t be in the business of investigating and punishing those crimes. They are terrible at it, their intervention downgrades sexual assault from crime to (student) women’s issue, and the campus system separates sexual assault (and its activists) on campus from the problem in the wider society. It’s a paternalistic system.

I’m equally skeptical about their role in protecting people from racism. One of the Yale students arguing with Nicholas Christakis, the “master” of one of the university’s residential colleges, in a widely shared video, said:

As your position as master it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students that live in Silliman. … It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here!

In fact, when Christakis took the job, he was quoted as saying:

The residential college system is one of the most distinctive features of Yale. Its virtue lies in the way it provides an intellectual, social, and moral home for students, and Yale is remarkable for its commitment to this kind of education.

Colleges have ethical and legal obligations to prevent and respond to racist discrimination and harassment on their institutional terrain. But everyone deserves a safe space where they can develop their social and moral foundations, in which to build communities and from which to launch their interventions into the wider society. Should universities be the ones to provide it — do only those admitted to Ivy League schools need this? Aren’t students adults, capable of waging the struggles to create their own social spaces? Some people offer a similar argument about the college athletes that make billions of dollars for their universities and the entertainment industry. The university is providing them with moral uplift and team spirit (so paying them would only undermine the pure motives of that effort). But left to their own devices, couldn’t student athletes negotiate a better deal for themselves?

Living in dorms and university-sanctioned fraternities and sororities is bad enough. (When I showed up to the University of Michigan — three years out of high school — it was my great fortune to have a dog, my excuse for never living in a dorm.) A system of houses staffed by faculty moral overseers is a structural mechanism for the prolonging of adolescence. This retards students’ development as adults and sets them further apart from the wider community, people who don’t have paternalistic institutions devoted to the construction of their moral selves in safe spaces — people who build civic institutions, and rely on the law and politics to safeguard their interests. Students rely on the cloistered campus system at their own risk, and its a shame that this social isolation (for better and worse) is concentrated among elite students.

Turning outward

It’s possible this system also encourages students to turn their activism inward, toward themselves, rather than outward to the wider social world. Here I am speaking generally, and explicitly not talking about the Yale students currently in the news, the most visible of whom (as in the video I linked) may or may not be involved in organized politics, I don’t know.

I’m old enough to remember documentaries about the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964. That was a protest movement that grew out of student civil rights activists who wanted to promote political causes on campus. In the most famous incident, Jack Weinberg – fresh off a summer trip to support the civil rights movement in the South – was arrested as he staffed a table on campus for the Congress of Racial Equality, and students blocked the police car he was in for 32 hours.

That student movement was inspiring partly because it seemed to represent the selfless attempt by college students to use their privileges – and the education they were receiving – to intervene progressively in the wider society, on issues like civil rights, war, labor, feminism, and the environment. They were fighting for their right to carry that outside work onto the campus. (In my day at Michigan, leftists opposed the deputization of campus police, and the implementation of a non-academic code of conduct, for fear they would be used to squelch student activism.)

One way to think about that distinction in today’s terms is adult versus adolescent. It was students’ engagement in those adult politics that germinated the alliances that were so threatening to the powers that were.

One of my favorite speeches is Mario Savio’s from that movement, in 1964 (he starts at 0:22):

Savio was a Freedom Summer veteran who wanted to organize for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on the Berkeley campus. In that speech, he’s objecting to the production by the university of students as commodities for future employers — objecting, in one sense, to the success of the university’s mission if it means severing the ties between student activists and their work in the wider world. That’s one movement at one moment, but it’s an important one.

Of course students need to advocate for themselves. The Free Speech Movement advocated their right to political activism. In contemporary activism, Black Lives Matter unites the struggles of college students with the plight of the Blacks facing police everywhere.

USA Today

USA Today

The argument for outward facing connects to the paternalism question, because the more students are integrated with the real world off campus for their social and moral community-building needs, the more their politics might be drawn outward as well — and the public might be more supportive of them in return.

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