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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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Charter, private, and wealthy schools lead California vaccine exemptions

We need to know who’s driving this epidemic of non-vaccination so we can decide what to do about it. One key element of the pattern is that it’s a practice of groups, not (just) individuals. And one way such groups are organized and maintained may be by interacting in and around schools — hotspots for parenting fads and identity performance, as well as (one hopes) useful information.

Kieran Healy the other day posted some visualizations of California vaccine exemption rates across schools and counties — then dug deeper on school type here. While he was writing his second post I followed his links to the data and did some more descriptive work, adding some more information on school type and now poverty levels.

I used this California Department of Education data source for the free-lunch eligibility rates (2013-2014), and this California Department of Public Health data source for the vaccine exemption rates for kindergartners (2014-2015). The measure of vaccine exemption is the “Personal Belief Exemption (PBE), whereby a parent requests exemption from the immunization requirements for school entry.” Some of them got supposedly got counseling before making the request, while others further requested a religious exemption from the counseling — those two groups are combined here in the PBE rate. I weighted the analyses by the number of kindergartners enrolled in each school, so the rates shown are for students, not schools (this also helps with the outliers, which are mostly very small schools).

1. Runaway vaccine exemptions are problems of the private and charter schools

I don’t know what percentage of kids need to be immunized, for which diseases, for the proper level of community protection. But these distributions are very skewed, so it makes sense to look at the extremes. Here are three measures, for just under 7,000 schools: the mean percent PBE (the average percent exempt among each kids’ classmates), the percentage of kids in a school with no exempt kindergartners, and the percentage of kids attending schools with more than 5% exempt.

graph.xlsx

The average charter school kindergartner goes to school with classmates almost 5-times more likely to be non-vaccinated; and charter school kids are more than 3-times as likely to be in class with 5% or more kids exempt.

2. Schools with lots of poor kids have much lower exemption rates

The relationship between exemption rates and percentage of children eligible for free lunch is negative and very strong. Because there are so many schools with no PBEs, I used a tobit regression to predict exemption rates (I also excluded the top 1% outliers). Note the private schools are excluded here because the free lunch data was missing for them. Here is the output:

tobit

Just in case the zeros are data errors, I reran the regression excluding the zero cases (logged and not logged), and got weaker but still very strong results.

I illustrate the relationship in the next section.

3. The poverty-exemption relationship is stronger in charter schools

Charter schools have fewer kids eligible for free-lunch than regular public schools (43% versus 55%). However, although the relationship between poverty and exemptions is strong in both charter and regular public schools, it is stronger in the charter schools (the interaction term is almost 7-times its standard error). Here they are, showing the steeper free-lunch slope for charter schools (with a logged y-axis):

charter-lunch

Rich charter schools on average have the highest exemption rates, while poor schools — charter or not — are heavily clustered around zero (note it’s jittered so you can see how many cases are at zero).

Update: Here is the same data, for all public schools, presented more simply:

graph.xlsx

One interpretation of this pattern goes like this: Charter schools do not per se promote vaccine exemption. But because they are more parent-driven, or targeted at certain types of parents, charter schools are more ideologically homogeneous. And because anti-vaccine ideology is concentrated among richer parents, charter schools provide them with a fertile breeding ground in which to generate and transmit anti-vaccine ideas. That’s why, although richer parents in general are driving vaccine denial, it’s especially concentrated in charter schools. This seems consistent with the general echo-chamber nature of information sharing in cultural niches, and the clusering/contagious nature of parenting fads. (The same may or may not hold for private schools.) This could be totally wrong — I’m open to other interpretations.

I’m also happy to share my data on request, but I’m not posting it yet because when I tinker with it more I might make corrections.

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