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The Racial Politics of Beer

By Maureen Ogle
Sunday, August 2, 2009

It was never going to be just a round of beers -- not when it was being served at the White House to a black (and part Irish) Harvard professor, a white police officer (also boasting Irish roots) and the mixed-race president of the United States.

Instead, it became a glass of racial politics, with an aftertaste of class warfare. Had the health-care battles been more engaging or Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court confirmation hearings gone awry, we might not have paid so much attention. But somehow the gathering morphed into a Major Event: Reporters thronged the White House press corral, demanding to know what beers the men would drink while they mutually deescalated. Forget the debate over the size and shape of the table at the Paris peace accords. Future historians will chronicle the Great Beer Sitdown of 2009.

On the big day, a waiter delivered mugs of beer -- along with peanuts and pretzels, of course -- to the men, who sat at a small table in the Rose Garden. Sgt. James Crowley sipped a Blue Moon, brewed by beer giant MillerCoors, an offshoot of two foreign companies. Perhaps in homage to the folks back home, Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. drank a Boston beer, Sam Adams Light. Vice President Biden, a surprise addition to the gathering and a lifelong teetotaler, requested Buckler, a nonalcoholic beer (and a Dutch import, no less). The deescalator in chief wielded a Bud Light, straight out of St. Louis by way of a Belgian-run behemoth.

Of course, nothing says "humanity" better than fermented grain. For 10,000 years, from Mesopotamia to medieval Europe, from Asia to Africa, human beings have prayed, haggled and waged war and peace while sipping the stuff. In Europe circa 3,000 B.C., beer-drinking played such a vital role in political and religious rituals that chieftains and warriors outfitted themselves with ornate cups and ewers, objects of precious stone and metal so symbolically powerful that they were buried with their owners.

Fast forward a few millennia, and it turns out that beer may prove an apt metaphor for America in the Age of Obama: Like the nation, the brewing industry struggles with racial complexity; like the nation, it still has a ways to go.

Despite the fact that blacks drink about as much beer as whites, to this day the only black-owned brewery in U.S. history was a short-lived enterprise in Wisconsin, launched in 1971 by a former Blatz executive. Otherwise, American brewing, the creation of German immigrants in the 19th century, was and largely remains a white man's world.

There has been some change. In the 1970s, brewing companies eager to cater to socially aware and politically liberal young adults scrambled to hire black secretaries and brewhouse workers. A handful of African Americans gained admission to beer's most lucrative wing, the distributorships. In the early 1980s, Jesse Jackson called for a boycott of Anheuser-Busch, claiming the company was racist. But the campaign fizzled: Many black urban leaders and the NAACP refused to participate, noting that A-B had done more than most companies, in or out of brewing, to hire minorities.

Even beer advertising, historically white, white and more white, learned to think black. When Miller Brewing launched Miller Lite in the 1970s, it wanted to convey a manly image (subtext: "lite" beer is not a diet drink). The company created a memorable, and successful, string of TV ads that featured retired professional athletes, many of them black. (Picture NFL star Bubba Smith tearing the top off a can of Lite.)

Still, the path toward racially neutral suds has not been easy. In the late 1980s, a period of declining beer sales, beermakers turned to an otherwise staid product, malt liquor, whose alcohol content runs 25 to 50 percent higher than that of regular beer. Market researchers concluded that its main enthusiasts were black urban males -- code for low income and low education. Ads for Colt 45, Mickey's and PowerMaster displayed oversize images of well-dressed black men with barely-dressed women hanging on their arms -- and appeared almost exclusively on billboards looming over urban neighborhoods decimated by poverty, crime and drugs.

Newspaper columnists, editorial writers and black community leaders -- including the head of Harlem's powerful Abyssinian Baptist Church -- condemned the ads. The surgeon general, Antonia Novello, denounced them as "socially irresponsible" and demanded that the brewers desist. Brewers backed off, but it's not clear who was the offending party: Nearly all beer advertising then and now features handsome men entwined in the arms of women. (Did Novello and others find only the notion of black sexuality threatening?)

In terms of integrating their advertising, aging athletes and "pimp" billboards are about as far as most American beermakers will go. Large-busted women, a mainstay of beer ads, are almost always white. Mostly it's white guys cracking wise, trying and failing to pick up the ladies at the bar. The snuggling couple whose sleigh ride was interrupted by a farting Clydesdale were white.

Still, it is a measure of how far we've traveled that the most notable beer campaign of recent years focused on black men: Anheuser-Busch's "Whassup!" ads could have been created only in an era when MTV had made hip-hop a staple of the suburbs, and when Americans could not only imagine but also elect a black president. The ads' actors reunited last year to shoot a revised version in support of the Obama campaign.

Indeed, even though Obama has handed neo-prohibitionist groups an easy fundraising opportunity (protesters showed up outside the White House on Thursday, demanding that the president serve orange juice instead), beer seemed a safe choice for a president who suffered through Gun-Clingers-Gate during the 2008 campaign. Imagine the accusations of elitism if Obama had said: "Hey guys, why don't we hash this out over a martini?"

Images of Obama sipping a cold one may not only give a boost to a president whose approval ratings are slipping; they also provide the racially laggard beer industry with the mother of all promotional opportunities. Any beer company not represented at the table must lament the marketing bonanza that might have been: "Abita Turbodog: The great taste of racial accord." Or "Six-pack of Anchor, 10 bucks. Racial harmony, priceless."

For all its staged lameness, there was something civilized and honest and adult about the event. Yes, grown-ups drink alcohol. Yes, alcohol can and does ease tension. Yes, Crowley, Gates and Obama likely found common ground. In a subsequent news conference, Crowley described the meeting as a "cordial and productive discussion" and said he and Gates were already planning another gathering. And in a brief written statement, the president said: "I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart. I am confident that has happened here tonight."

Of course if they'd really wanted to do it right, they would have wrapped up the sit-down the way we all know these "let's man-hug and make up" scenes end: "Bartender, bring us a round of shots!"

Wait: mixing shots, politics and diplomacy? Isn't that Hillary's territory? That's what was missing: gender balance.

maureen@maureenogle.com

Maureen Ogle is the author of "Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer."

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