American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
January-March 2021

Why Refusing the Empire’s Sugar Still Matters for Abolition

Anthony Ryan Hatch, Chair and Associate Professor of Science in Society, Wesleyan University

Anthony Ryan Hatch

Anthony Ryan Hatch

The pandemic has brought the absurdities of America’s food apartheid into sharp relief. Food commodity chains are operating as superhighways for the transmission of COVID-19, carting the virus through groups of agricultural workers—especially in industrial animal manufacturing—and food service workers in warehouses, grocery stores, and restaurants. New arrangements now enable well-to-do customers to pay low-wage workers to deliver their food and put it away in their kitchens

Pandemic-related job losses layered on top of extreme economic inequality have increased both food scarcity and hunger as well as disordered eating. People suffering from pre-existing conditions (many of which result directly from consuming sugar-rich processed foods) are in especially grave danger from COVID-19. The Trump administration’s actions and inactions in this area have only made a bad situation terrible. 

As Karen Washington’s language of food apartheid suggests, scholars across the social and environmental sciences are reframing the conversation about food justice in terms of environmental racism and racial justice (see the empirically rich and well theorized volume Black Food Matters edited by Hanna Garth and Ashanté M. Reese). Perhaps it is the systemic nature of the food system itself that permits individual corporate actors (or sectors organized around particular commodities) to fly under the moral radar. The tactic has allowed food corporations to shirk responsibility for collective biological harms.

Canceling Sugar 

After decades of criticism, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben finally got phased out in the middle of the pandemic in summer 2020. George Floyd’s murder proved too much for the two cultural icons of Black servitude and figurative stand-ins for the institutionalized violence of food apartheid in the U.S. They are now culturally repackaged to suit woke consumers who had finally had enough of America’s violence against Black people, consumers who would enjoy industrial and genetically modified rice and artificially flavored high fructose corn syrup if it had a less racist face. Not only were Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben harmful culturally, because syrup and rice are metabolized as sugars in the body, they are also biologically harmful. Yet, changing the cultural face of empire often allows the material technologies of empire to remain intact.

It is easier to protest the empire’s image rather than change the empire that is the inspiration for the image and requires its mass acceptance for cultural legitimacy and profit-taking. While the two icons got the boot, no one called for mass boycotts of Mars, Incorporated or the Quaker Oats Company as a response to the racist imagery of their brands. Changing the image and structure of the empire involves both cultural criticism and consciousness-raising that expose the lies of the powerful and institutional analysis that reveals how power worked to produce the lie in the first place. For example, Cristin Kearns and her colleagues uncovered how the so-called Sugar Research Foundation (now the Sugar Association, Inc.), a pseudo-scientific creation of the modern-day sugar barons, paid Harvard University nutritionists to publish false claims that consumption of dietary fat is responsible for heart disease and downplay the truth about sugar’s links to heart disease. Other obfuscations remain buried. As Khalil Gibran Muhammad reminded us in the 1619 Project, there is nothing “post” about the colonial food system that produces sugar. In 2020, racialized slave labor still produces sugar and racialized peasantry eats that sugar. Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” faced more backlash than Domino Sugar. Walker’s art raises urgent questions about the patterns of institutional and cultural racism that accompany the ongoing hyper-production and consumption of sugar.

Given all of this, how have Black people not cancelled sugar itself? Media scholar Meredith D. Clark defines canceling as “an expression of agency, a choice to withdraw one’s attention from someone or something whose values, (in)action, or speech are so offensive, one no longer wishes to grace them with their presence, time, and money.” Black people have cancelled celebrity chefs, clothing manufacturers, cosmetic companies, media companies, sports leagues and teams, pseudo-scientists and universities, police officers, and elected politicians for their contributions to antiblack racism. Yet, no contemporary mass movement fighting for the health of Black people has cancelled or refused sugar specifically because it is antiracist and abolitionist to do so, but perhaps it should. 

Sugar Consumption: It’s Complicated 

Measured in Black lives and limbs lost, sugar has played a leading role as one of the most racist actants that has ever been rolled out of the colonial factory of white supremacy. Sugar is responsible for a lion’s share of Black pain and death. The current system forces us to binge on a staggering amount of sugar. Americans eat 22 teaspoons of added sugar every day, far more than the recommended six per day for women and nine for men. Only 26 percent of Black youth and 34 percent of Black adults meet the standard for eating fewer than 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugars

The more available sugar is in any given food environment, the higher the prevalence of diabetes in that environment. Black people of all ages disproportionately suffer the negative health effects associated with surplus sugar consumption, particularly in terms of diabetes and heart disease, two major pre-existing conditions that magnify the dangers of COVID-19. 

As opposed to America’s food ecology comprising “food deserts” or “food swamps,” we should use metaphors that reference engineered environments like landfills to describe Americans’ relationship to food and sugar. 

Strangely, neither the American Diabetes Association nor the American Heart Association—the two professional medical organizations that have the most at stake over the mass consumption of sugar—take the position that we should eat less than these recommendations. Popular diets, from Atkins to Paleo to keto, encourage people to abstain from eating sugar-based foods principally on scientific ideas about what constitutes a healthy diet and knowledge of the real biological risks of sugar consumption. But sugar abstinence, as Karen Throsby’s work suggests, is unequal, falling primarily into the domain white, middle-class healthism. Feminist, indigenous, and critical race scholars have engaged the idea of refusal as a guide for analysis and political action (see Audra Simpson, Ruha Benjamin, and Kim TallBear for starters). How might communities collectively refuse sugar as a part of an antiracist plan of action? As suffragettes and prisoners have demonstrated via the hunger strike, an individual endeavor of refusal to eat the empire’s food takes on additional power and moral force through collective action. 

Go After the Profits 

People didn’t always abstain from eating the empire’s sugar just because it was unhealthy. In the 1790s, British abolitionists called the Anti-saccharites refused to eat (or buy) sugar because it was produced by slave labor. The very first mass movement designed to promote the abstention from sugar was grounded in an abolitionist politics that had everything to do with ending slavery. The Anti-saccharites devised a powerful new tactic to put pressure on the transatlantic slave trade and colonial slavery. Refuse to buy or consume anything that had been made by enslaved people, especially sugar and rum. 

In 1791, William Fox published a blistering abolitionist pamphlet titled An Address to the People of Great Britain, on the Propriety of Abstaining from West India Sugar and Rum. In it, Fox castigated his fellow Britishers for their participation in the crime of transnational slavery as practiced throughout the British colonies. He writes,  

If we purchase the commodity, we participate in the crime. The slave-dealer, the slave-holder, and the slave driver, are all virtually agents of the consumer, and may be considered as employed and hired by him to procure the commodity. For, by holding out the temptation, he is the original cause, the first mover in the horrid process; and every distinction is done away by the moral maxim. That whatever we do by another, we do ourselves (p. 4).

Whereas moral appeals to the fundamental humanity of slaves could be debated endlessly or ignored wholesale by slave traders and owners, direct action against the financial interests of these proto-racial capitalists was both an urgent and necessary tactic to achieve structural change. Civil rights leaders later applied this principle in the Birmingham Bus Boycott, a year-long abstention from the segregated public transportation system. Perhaps the central lesson from the Birmingham Bus Boycott ought to be revisited—when social movements go after the empire’s ill-gotten profits, you are going after something it values and will defend at any cost.

Any opinions expressed in the articles in this publication are those of the authors and not the American Sociological Association.