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Food and Color
Picture a pair of hands holding the soil—moist, crumbling, flecked with threadlike bits of root. A small beetle struggles loose from a falling clod to escape the upheaval and clambers over the farmer’s cracked knuckles. Picture a woman’s hand reaching into a bin of eggplants at the farmers market: she hefts one purple globe, squeezes it to test its freshness, and rubs its glossy skin with her thumb.
Probably the hands you imagined were white. Statistically speaking, this isn’t far off. Among our primary racial and ethnic minorities, only Native Americans are represented among farm owners in numbers commensurate with their fraction of our whole population. Black Americans are 12.6% of our population, and only 1.6% of our farmers; Hispanic and Latino Americans are 16.3% of our population and only 3.2% of farmers; Asian Americans are 4.8% of our population and only 0.6% of farmers. Surveys from across the country show that farmers market attendees skew whiter and more affluent than the surrounding population.
Today’s news displays the dramas of racial tension playing out in our nation’s cities, but America’s history of racial injustice has close ties to the soil from the very beginning of the European migration. In Maine and in many other areas, the French and English compounded systematic genocide with deceptive treaties that promised annual allotments of food for the natives’ peaceful retreat to reservations. Even at the best of times, this devil’s bargain forever deprived the Passamaquoddies of their traditional hunting and farming grounds and hence their means of self-sufficiency. Too often, the colonists broke their promises and left the natives on the brink of starvation. Soon, southern plantation-owners were building their agricultural empire on the backs of African slaves to feed a textile industry hungry for cheap cotton at any human price; later, the hard-won land ownership of these slaves’ descendants became the target of predatory lending practices by banks and the Farm Service Agency—a massive land grab that knocked down the number of Black farmers from a high of nearly a million in 1920 to just 30,000 in 1982. Before World War II, Japanese Americans farmed 200,000 acres in California and accounted for 30% of the market gardeners in that state. Then, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This order made no mention of race in its text, but it was used to justify the internment of 70,000 Japanese Americans and 50,000 Japanese immigrants nationwide, and to dissolve any land titles they held. These are just a few examples among many.
Race has been a side issue at best in the movement for a better food supply, but it is no accident that the culture of unhealthy food and the culture of racial oppression share the ugly features of unequal opportunity, consolidation of resources, and the insidious support of public policy. The connection of food production and distribution to racially charged exploitation didn’t pleasantly disappear after the Emancipation Proclamation. Meaningful access to healthy and affordable food often depends on living in the “right” (rhymes with “white”) neighborhood. Minorities continue to play a crucial, if relatively invisible, role in the production of our nation’s food: according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey, 76% of hired farm laborers in the U.S. identify as Latino or Hispanic. Farm labor is exempt from most labor standards, including minimum wage requirements, workers’ compensation, and unemployment insurance. Over half of the farmworkers in the U.S. do not even enjoy the rights and protections of American citizenship. These factors only make the fight for good food more difficult, more complex, and more urgent.
Writer Raj Patel says, “What I miss in the U.S. food movement is an urgent sense of history. History about the soil on which local food is grown. About the blood of first nations and slaves in that soil. About the legacy of settler colonialism that lets some folk obsess over kale while those harvesting it can’t afford to buy it.” Our nation cannot afford to heal one injustice by further opening another wound.
To learn more about the intersection of food and race, and to find opportunities to help move this intersection in the right direction, try:
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