Tag Archives: journalism

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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No paper, no news (#NoPaperNoNews)

nopapernonews

In the abstract, the missions of science and science reporting align. But in the market arena they both have incentives to cheat, stretch, and rush. Members of the two groups sometimes have joint interests in pumping up research findings. Reporters feel pressure to get scoops on cutting edge research, research that they want to appear important as well as true — so they may want to avoid a pack of whining, jealous tweed-wearers seen as more hindrance than help. And researchers (and their press offices) want to get splashy, positive coverage of their discoveries that isn’t bogged down by the objections of all those whining, jealous tweed-wearers either.

Despite some bad incentives, the alliance between good researchers and good reporters may be growing stronger these days, with the potential to help stem the daily tide of ridiculous stories. Partly due to social media interaction, it’s become easier for researchers to ping reporters directly about their research, or about a problem with a story; and it’s become easier for reporters to find and contact researchers to cover their work, and for comment or analysis of research they’re covering. The result is an increase in research reporting that is skeptical and exploratory rather than just exuberant or exaggerated. Some of this rapid interaction between experts researchers and expert reporters, in fact, operates as a layer of improved peer review, subjecting potentially important research to more extreme vetting at just the right moment.

Those of us in these relationships who want to do the right thing really do need each other. And one way to help is to encourage the development of prosocial norms and best practices. To that end, I think we should agree on a No Paper No News pact. Let’s pledge:

  • If you are a researcher, or university press office, and you want your research covered, free up the paper — and insist that news coverage link to it. Make the journal open a copy, or post a preprint somewhere like SocArXiv.
  • If you are a reporter or editor, and you want to cover new research, insist that the researcher, university, or journal, provide open access to its content — then link to it.
  • If you are a consumer of science or research reporting, and you want to evaluate news coverage, look for a clear link to an open access copy of the paper. If you don’t see one, flag it with the #NoPaperNoNews tag, and pressure the news/research collaborators to comply with this basic best practice.

This is not an extremist approach. I’m not saying we must require complete open access to all research (something I would like to see, of course). And this is not dissing the peer review process, which, although seriously flawed in its application, is basically a good idea. But peer review is nothing like a guarantee that research is good, and it’s even less a guarantee that research as translated through a news release and then a reporter and an editor is reliable and responsible. #NoPaperNoNews recognizes that when research enters the public arena through the news media, it may become important in unanticipated ways, and it may be subject to more irresponsible uses, misunderstandings, and exploitation. Providing direct access to the research product itself makes it possible for concerned people to get involved and speak up if something is going wrong. It also enhances the positive impact of the research reporting, which is great when the research is good.

Plenty of reporters, editors, researchers, and universities practice some version of this, but it’s inconsistent. For example, the American Sociological Association currently has a news release up about a paper in the American Sociological Review, by Paula England,  Jonathan Bearak, Michelle Budig, and Melissa Hodges. And, as is now usually the case, that paper was selected by the ASR editors to be the freebie of the month, so it’s freely available. But the news release (which also only lists England as an author) doesn’t link to the paper. Some news reports link to the free copy but some don’t. ASA could easily add boilerplate language to their news releases, firmly suggesting that coverage link to the original paper, which is freely available.

Some publishers support this kind of approach, laying out free copies of breaking news research. But some don’t. In those cases, reporters and researchers can work together to make preprint versions available. In the social sciences, you can easily and immediately put a preprint on SocArXiv and add the link to the news report (to see which version you are free to post — pre-review, post-review, pre-edit, post-edit, etc. — consult your author agreement or look up the journal in the Sherpa/Romeo database.)

This practice is easy to enforce because it’s simple and technologically easy. When a New York Times reporter says, “I’d love to cover this research. Just tell me where I can link to the paper,” most researchers, universities, and publishers will jump to accommodate them. The only people who will want to block it are bad actors: people who don’t want their research scrutinized, reporters who don’t want to be double-checked, publishers who prioritize income over the public good.

#NoPaperNoNews

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Gender on the Diane Rehm show in September

The last Media Matters report on the Sunday TV talk shows reported that 73% of guests were men in 2015, a little less than the 75% recorded for the previous two years. (That includes journalists as well as politicos.) I expect my local NPR station, with its liberal audience, to have a better showing for women, and it does. The Diane Rehm Show, which is produced at WAMU but distributed nationally as well as podcasted, had 129 guests in September, and 80 of them (62%) were men, by my manual count. (I’m not counting the hosts, who changed over the month.)

But what has been striking me lately, and the reason I did the count, was how rarely it seems that women are in the majority among the guests, and especially how often there is one woman and more than one man. Without a whole conversation analysis, you can imagine the kind of dynamic that made me think, “sure is a high male/female word-count ratio in this discussion.”

The count confirms this. The show averaged 2.8 guests per episode. So how are the men and women distributed? Of the 46 shows aired in September, 12 featured just one guest, 8 of whom were male. Male guests outnumbered female guests overall in 29 episodes, or 63% of the shows. Female guests outnumbered men in only 8 shows (17%), with the remaining 9 (20%) being gender balanced. What accounts for my annoyance, maybe, was that in those male-dominated shows, more than half (16 of 29) featured just one woman and more than one man. The reverse – one man and more than one woman – happened just three times. Details in the figure.

dianerehmgender

The most common configuration is one woman and two men. 

My point is just that a 62% / 38% gender split leads to a lot of small-group discussions where men outnumber women, and especially solo-women versus multiple men, which is its own kind of gender situation. I imagine you get this pretty often in cases – say, at an academic conference – where there is some effort to reach gender balance on most panels, but women are less than half altogether. (You can see they were paying attention because there were no all-male panels of four or five.)

I’ll leave it to Media Matters to do their annual report again next year, but I did take a quick look at some of the Sunday shows for September. On Meet the Press I found 62% men, and 75% of the shows were male-dominated. On Fox News Sunday 71% of guests were male, and every show was male-dominated. Face the Nation had 72% male guests but also every one male-dominated. (Incidentally, Face the Nation has a convenient list of every guest so far for the year, so I was able quickly tally the gender of their 348 guests, 73% of whom were men, counting multiple appearances. That’s a tiny bit better than their 2015 total of 76%.)


Related on gender composition:

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No Black women are not the “most educated” group in the US

2020 UPDATE: This post has been up here for four years now. It has been viewed 100,000 times, but the meme that started this has been viewed 10 million times.  I’ll summarize: Compared with Black men, Black women are highly educated (more than women of other groups, compared to the men in those groups). But compared with White (and some Asian) women, Black women have fewer degrees, on average, because of structural racism. You just can’t tell how great a group of people are by how many degrees they have. Black women have been materially oppressed in America forever, and they deserve better than this — more education, better education, and more respect — because Black lives matter.

If you would like a “real” source to cite for this, you can cite my book, Enduring Bonds, which includes a version of this post on pages 160-164.

Here’s the original post:


I don’t know where this started, but it doesn’t seem to be stopping. The following headlines are all completely factually wrong, and the organizations that published them should correct them right away:

The Root: Black Women Now the Most Educated Group in US

Upworthy: Black women are now America’s most educated group

SalonBlack women are now the most educated group in the United States

GoodBlack Women Are Now The Most Educated Group In The U.S.

And then the video, by ATTN:, on Facebook, with 6 million views so far. I won’t embed the video here, but it includes these images, with completely wrong facts:

bweduc1

bweduc2

What’s true is that Black women, in the 2009-2010 academic year, received a higher percentage of degrees within their race/ethnic group than did women in any other major group. So, for example, of all the MA degrees awarded to Black students, Black women got 71% of them. In comparison, White women only got 62% of all White MA degrees. Here is the chart, from the data that everyone linked to (which is not new data, by the way, and has nothing to do with 2015):

bwdegchart

For Black women to be the “most educated group,” they would have to have more degrees per person than other groups. In fact, although a greater percentage of Black women have degrees than Black men do, they have less education on average than White women, White men, Asian/Pacific Islander women, and Asian/Pacific Islander men.

Here are the percentages of each group that holds a BA degree or higher (ages 25-54), according to the 2010-2014 American Community Survey, with Black women highlighted:

bwdegchartBA

23% of Black women ages 25-54 have BA degrees or more education, compared with 38% of White women. This does not mean Black women are worse (or that White women are better). It’s just the actual fact. Here are the percentages for PhD degrees:

bwdegchartPhDJPG

Just over half of 1% of Black women have PhDs, compared with just over 1% of White women – and almost 3% of Asian/PI women. White women are almost twice as likely to have a PhD and Black women, Asian/PI women are more than 5-times as likely.

Racism is racism, inequality is inequality, facts are facts. Saying this doesn’t make me racist or not racist, and it doesn’t change the situation of Black women, who are absolutely undervalued in America in all kinds of ways (and one of those ways is that they don’t have the same educational opportunities as other groups). There are some facts in these stories that are true, too. And of course, why Black women (and women in general) are getting more degrees than men are is an important question. But please don’t think it’s my responsibility to research and present all this information correctly before it’s appropriate for me to point out the obvious inaccuracy here. You don’t need this meme to do the good you’re trying to do by sharing these stories.

Our current information economy rewards speed and clickability. Journalists who know what they’re doing are more expensive and slower. Making good graphics and funny GIFs is a good skill, but it’s a different skill than interpreting and presenting information. We can each help a little by pausing before we share. And those of us with the skills and training to track these things down should all pitch in and do some debunking once in a while. For academics, there is little extra reward in this (as evidenced by my most recent, sup-par departmental “merit” review), beyond the rewards we already get for our cushy jobs, but it should be part of our mission.

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