The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Supermarkets are powerful flash points in racial politics

Grocery stores dispense hierarchy along with food

People gather on June 1 near the Cup Foods grocery store where George Floyd died in Minneapolis. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

In recent months, grocery stores have become sites of clashes over mask-wearing. In some cases, videos of customers (nearly always White customers) who refuse to wear their masks and harass employees and other shoppers have gone viral. In Minnesota, a couple insisted on their right to wear masks with swastikas. These episodes speak to the ways stores have become spaces to assert White privilege and autonomy.

It is no surprise that consequential, racially charged battles are happening in grocery store aisles. Historically, grocery stores are key, if underrecognized, nodes in the history of racism and violence in the United States. Food, an object we so often imagine as bringing people together, has been a consistent backdrop for policing and assault of Black people in particular. Recognizing and addressing this is key to eliminating racism from day-to-day American life.

Consider that early in the summer police were summoned to Cup Foods after George Floyd allegedly tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes — and he died.

His case shares the same origin point with some of the most explosive cases of lynching and police violence in American history; many of these emerged from the seemingly simple act of buying or selling groceries. Ida B. Wells’s anti-lynching campaign was sparked by the murders of an African American grocer and his employees. The lynching of Emmett Till in August 1955 came after he purportedly whistled at the White grocer’s wife. And Trayvon Martin died at the hands of George Zimmerman after Zimmerman thought he looked suspicious while walking back from a convenience store with Skittles and iced tea in 2012. Less famous but no less meaningful recent incidents — for instance, the deaths of Elijah McClain and Rayshard Brooks — also were occasioned by food purchases or visits to restaurants.

Food has long been used as a tool for advancing White supremacy and colonization. For Africans and African Americans, the history of food can’t be untangled from the history of slavery. Beginning in the 17th century, plantations in the Americas used the labor of enslaved Africans to turn sugar and rum into global commodities.

Even after the end of slavery, stereotypes of servile African American cooks, maids and children permeated food advertising. These images reinforced the idea that Black people’s relationship to food properly consisted of serving or amusing White people. The needs of people of color for food were treated as, at best, laughable and at worst as a way of forcing submission. Hunger was a weapon.

Stores echoed and amplified the racial hierarchy of food access. In the 19th century, local stores that accepted company scrip rather than cash, or that sold sharecroppers the seeds and supplies demanded by local planters, enabled White elites to continue to impose their will on African Americans.

Even aside from these practices, the everyday business of most stores imposed a racial and gender order. Owners and clerks dispensed food and also monthly credit. Their decisions reflected their sense of what customers of different races and classes needed and deserved.

Shoppers, for their part, carefully gauged what information to share with grocers to get what they wanted. For Black people, markers of deference — a friendly smile, a lowered head, the right level of eye contact, physical distance — were crucial. These determined both the price they paid and their bargaining position. The fewer rights a customer had outside the store, the more they were expected to give way in the store.

In the 1920s and ’30s, nationally owned chain stores and restaurants spread dramatically. They were originally seen as an escape from the surveillance of local stores. In lieu of personal attention, they promised not only lower prices, but also standardized goods, self-serve shopping free from the grocer’s gaze, and control and presumably a more equitable shopping experience.

But from the beginning, Black shoppers found barriers here, too.

Chains focused their marketing and store locations on White middle- and upper-class consumers. In fact, in the South, self-service chain stores succeeded largely by appealing to shoppers as “safe” for White women. Relief from the prying eyes and questions of male employees and loiterers, and access to lower prices, were both meant to protect a racialized conception of womanhood, not to provide equality to all customers.

Chain store trade journals made this clear. They portrayed the demands of White housewives for new products or lower prices as natural extensions of their laudatory work as wives and mothers.

But they portrayed Black customers’ disaffection and demands for equal service from supermarkets in very different terms — as a threat to business. By the 1960s and 1970s, large-scale grocers registered Black dissent as an indication that Black residents of central cities were maladapted to, and undeserving of, the low prices, consistent merchandising and service the modernized grocery store promised. Over and over, Black people’s demands (personal and also political) for fair pricing in their neighborhoods, for stocking merchandise from Black-owned businesses and for employment opportunities, were countered by grocery firms that asserted that these claims for equality in the marketplace made it impossible to do business in the minority, urban neighborhoods.

Today, large chain supermarkets both fill important needs and extract money and capital from the neighborhoods they “serve.” They are not any less complex social spaces than older stores, although investments in private guards and off-duty police mean that conflicts are more often dealt with swiftly and out of view. A Cub Foods supermarket in a largely Black neighborhood in north Minneapolis spent up to $250,000 a year on security in 2014, according to a report in the Star Tribune.

Yet the greatest costs of such tight security are often borne by African Americans. In 2014, for example, at the same store, a neighborhood organizer who refused to stop collecting signatures on a voting rights petition was thrown to the ground by an off-duty police officer, the Star Tribune reported. The presence of “security” is everywhere: carefully watched entrances and exits (and often, store floor and employee break rooms) and infant formula kept in locked cases that can be unlocked by only a few employees.

And none of this even begins to account for other barriers to food: for example, restrictions on what can be purchased with WIC or SNAP (food stamps), or stores that no longer accept cash. In all of these instances, efficiency, money and property are protected at the cost of poor people’s access to food. Overt racism and the disproportionate amount of poverty and illness among people of color mean they bear the brunt of all these measures. Further, Psyche Williams-Forson has documented the more subtle policing of African American foodways, even by well-meaning health workers, policymakers, cookbook authors and writers.

The use of police and policing at Cub, a large local supermarket chain, as well as the small, single-store Cup Foods store, reveals how grocery stores have stood at the center of policing.

Fundamentally, supermarkets must do many things to protect the bottom line beyond pleasing customers: keep tabs on inventory, establish guidelines for worker efficiency and adhere to profit margins. To do so, stores have also preserved a social order that treats shoppers of different races differently, dispensing hierarchy along with food — and, in fact, creating it.

Addressing this reality will involve reimagining the work of food.

Activists have long tried to do this, transforming food into a vehicle for shattering hierarchies in lieu of reinforcing them. When Mississippi planters refused food to those who had registered to vote in the 1960s, Fannie Lou Hamer founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative, which provided food, medical care and sustenance to Black farmers and laid the groundwork for today’s Black-run community gardens and “food sovereignty” movements.

In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the Black Panthers built free breakfast programs across the country, grass-roots food justice movements swept cities such as New York, and a multiracial coalition pushed to make school breakfast and lunch programs a reliable source of food for children.

This history set the stage for the food politics of the summer’s uprisings. The intersection at which Floyd died overflowed with food and other necessities for weeks during the subsequent occupation; even before this, the coronavirus sparked networks of mutual aid so that neighbors might help each other bear shortages and loss. In all of these cases, the availability of food facilitated daily well-being as well as larger reimaginings of our most basic systems.

These examples make clear that racial policing around food is not inevitable; if we look at history closely, we find ample evidence that food can undermine racism and enact justice when it is less policed, more available and overseen by members of the community. As cities, towns, states and the nation rethink policing, they might also rethink what people have to do get things such as Skittles and iced tea. In so doing, we can create a more equitable way of distributing food now, and a truly just future.