The big broom of history has been clearing out the rubble this month, furiously sweeping away at some of the most enduring racist symbols still in American stores and restaurants.
►The Aunt Jemima pancake mix brand got brushed into the dustbin after 131 years when its owner, Quaker Oats, acknowledged it was based on a racial stereotype.
►Sambo’s restaurant in Santa Barbara, California, the last store in a chain that started in 1957, dropped its name after being pressured to account for the racist history behind it.
►Uncle Ben’s rice, Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup and Cream of Wheat porridge also have used imagery that has connoted smiling Black servitude to white masters. Those stereotyped images are being changed or reviewed, according to the companies that own those brands – all part of a corporate reckoning that experts say has been a long time coming.
“Better late than never, but these images have caused a lot of damage for a long period of time, and that should not be forgotten,” said Todd Boyd, professor of race and pop culture at the University of Southern California.
The housecleaning flows from the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis, a moment that sparked nationwide protests and splashed up a torrent of indignation over police brutality and racial inequality. The resulting waves since have washed over American businesses, where some (mostly white) customers have wondered what breakfast food has to do with any of this all of a sudden.
The answer is “everything.”
Changing images:Eskimo Pie, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben's and Cream of Wheat are changing. Are the Washington Redskins next?
'Happy mammy face'
The images on the packaging of Uncle Ben’s, Aunt Jemima, Cream of Wheat and Mrs. Butterworth’s all are variations of the Black cook or “mammy” figure, a racial theme that reinforced the cruel power dynamic of the slave-trading antebellum South and the Jim Crow segregation that replaced it. That’s when Black servants worked for white owners and were forcibly kept in their segregated places, all while they were supposed to be happy about it, according to the white ruling class.
“When you open that box in the morning, you see this happy mammy face,” said Rita Roberts, professor of history and Africana studies at Scripps College in Claremont, California. “No matter if you put pearls on her, it’s still a happy Black woman content where she is. Even if I’m a really poor white person, it tells me how superior I am to that, and I can be comforted, that I can have this incredible innocence about not even taking any responsibility for why that Black woman’s face is on there and why I’m being served, because I can eat my breakfast and just have this constant reminder.”
Roberts likens it to the separate water fountains for Black and white people in the Jim Crow South, another “constant reminder of white superiority.”
These images also perpetuated harmful stereotypes about Black Americans that soon became slurs that are still in use today. A white boy calling a Black girl an “Aunt Jemima” never was a compliment. Nor was it on Twitter this week, when some white users tried to mock Georgia politician Stacey Abrams by saying that Abrams could replace the departed Jemima. Abrams, who is Black, is a former state lawmaker with multiple college degrees, including a law degree from Yale, and is widely considered a potential running mate for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
“Older generation of Southerners genuinely liked their black nannies, cooks – I remember!” a Twitter user identified as Peter Brimelow wrote June 17. “Replacing Aunt Jemima with Stacy (sic) Abrams won’t have quite the same effect.”
Reinforced by such images, similar racial attitudes benefited corporate America and the white capitalist class at the expense of Black labor. Slavery, obviously, was highly profitable for plantations because the cost of labor was essentially zero after purchasing the slaves and providing their room and board.
After slavery, the racial divide between white and non-white workers further benefited corporate America by keeping the cost of labor down. If poor white laborers could be convinced to identify more with white business owners than with fellow non-white workers, that reduced the risk that white and non-white labor will join together to demand better wages and working conditions.
“The notion of maintaining control of labor is absolutely essential for understanding the perpetuation of white supremacy,” Roberts told USA TODAY.
Racism, in this sense, keeps poor white workers down as well as non-white workers, dividing them and distracting them from the power they could realize if they banded together, Roberts said. President Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, recognized this dynamic in a famous quote.
“If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket,” he said. “Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."
In this regard, Aunt Jemima and these other brands essentially helped give white Americans another “somebody to look down on.” Roberts said these images were staring right back at them in the kitchen, serving them with a smile and supporting the societal order that helped drive profit for corporate America.
“In the case of Aunt Jemima, white advertisers reduced blackness to something that whites could know, possesses, and trust,” said Gregory Smithers, a Virginia Commonwealth history professor who co-authored the 2015 book "Racism in American Popular Media: From Aunt Jemima to the Frito Bandito."
“These qualities made her ideal for selling pancake mix or syrup. In essence, the mammy tradition extended the legacy of enslavement, white Americans seeing Black people as commodities, objects devoid of feeling and emotions. This type of imagery pervaded 20th-century pop culture, naturalizing racist perceptions of Black 'otherness.'’’
Yet other racist brands got swept into the trash can long ago.
Legacies of the Lost Cause
The Coon Chicken Inn died in the mid-20th century after using cartoonish depictions of a smiling Black man wearing a porter’s cap. Frito-Lay’s “Frito Bandito” got canceled in the early 1970s after complaints about this sombrero-wearing Mexican mascot, an outlaw who spoke broken English.
Jemima’s image changed over the years to become less overtly racist, helping her outlast those other symbols until now, part of a cultural moment that’s claimed even the name of white country music band Lady Antebellum. The group voluntarily changed its name to Lady A, dropping the reference to the murderous Southern plantation days of white landowners whipping Black slaves for profit.
All of these names and images have a common denominator. They are legacies of the old Confederacy and the so-called Lost Cause, where white supremacy and treason against America became open badges of honor.
These symbols “simply perpetuate that myth of the old South, if you will, or the myth of the good old days,” said University of Illinois associate professor Jason Chambers, author of the book "Madison Avenue and the Color Line: African Americans in the Advertising Industry." “When African Americans hear Caucasian Americans utilize that phrase 'the good old days,' we have to ask what you mean. Because your good old days aren’t the same as my good ol’ days.”
The current reckoning seeks to debunk that myth, empowered by technology that has exposed systemic racism in ways that did not exist 20 years go. Not only can mobile phone cameras instantly show the world what happened to George Floyd, but social media allows consumers to tell the world about the history of these brands and speak directly – and publicly – to them.
This put pressure on these companies to change, seemingly sparking a chain reaction that, still, seemed cynical to some. After all this time, now they all might change at once?
“This to me is like pandering,” said Nsenga Burton, professor of film and media studies at Emory University. “It’s like, 'Everybody else is doing it, so what can we do?’”
She called such brand changes a “superficial fix.”
“It needs to happen,” she said, but called on these companies to do something more meaningful, such as investing in education and programs for Black Americans.
In the end, the catalyst for change there might be the same catalyst that kept Aunt Jemima alive since 1889. Profit. Some say that’s the only reason that caused them to reconsider these symbols now.
“We used to maybe say, 'That’s just from a different era or period of time,’” said Michael Priem, a brand expert and CEO of advertising technology firm Modern Impact. “Today, we don’t have any patience for that. We look at that as being tone-deaf, and we will cast our vote with our wallet.”
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org