February 5, 2013

Cola Wars, Color Wars

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s war on big soda has drawn a lot of fire. Not surprisingly, the makers of said sodas, including Coke, have come out against it. What might be more surprising is one of Coke’s allies in the fight, the NAACP. Why might the NAACP throw in with a major corporation on an issue like that? As with so many things, history provides some potential insight.

UVa history prof Grace Elizabeth Hale, writing in the New York Times over the weekend, explored what in history might cause the NAACP to line up with the cola companies to fight Bloomberg’s ban. It goes back to the very beginning, before even the days of Coca-Cola:
[John Pemberton’s] first, an 1884 invention called French Wine Coca, was a copy of a popular French wine that contained cocaine. But in November 1885, just as the product began to sell, Atlanta outlawed alcohol sales.

Across the nation, support for prohibition was often tied to the desire by native whites to control European Catholics, American Indians, Asian-Americans and, especially in the South, African-Americans. It gave police officers an excuse to arrest African-Americans on the pretext of intoxication.
Pemberton shifted focus to a “temperance drink” that would have “medicinal” effects – Coca-Cola. Things got sticky in 1899, when he shifted to pushing the cocaine-infused drink as “refreshing” in its new signature curved bottles:
Anyone with a nickel, black or white, could now drink the cocaine-infused beverage. Middle-class whites worried that soft drinks were contributing to what they saw as exploding cocaine use among African-Americans. Southern newspapers reported that ‘negro cocaine fiends’ were raping white women, the police powerless to stop them. By 1903, Candler had bowed to white fears (and a wave of anti-narcotics legislation), removing the cocaine and adding more sugar and caffeine.
Hale then goes on to explain how Coke basically neglected the African-American market, giving rival Pepsi a wedge to help grow its market share, albeit not for very long:
The campaign was so successful that many Americans began using a racial epithet to describe Pepsi. By 1950, fearing a backlash by white consumers, Pepsi had killed the program, but the image of Coke and Pepsi as ‘white’ and ‘black’ drinks lingered.

Not long after, perhaps seeing the business error of its ways, Coke quietly began to market to African-Americans. Eventually, part of Coke’s strategy was to support African-American organizations, forming the basis of its relationship with the N.A.A.C.P.
Hale doesn’t allege that the NAACP is only paying back Coke for its previous support – although there’s something to be said for standing by those who’ve helped you out in the past. She concludes:
the New York State N.A.A.C.P. may have a legitimate complaint against the soda restriction as a threat to minority business. And it may be fair to see the proposal, as some observers have intimated, as an instance of middle-class whites trying to control the behavior of working-class minorities — just as they did under Prohibition. But to understand the real story behind this unexpected alliance, we first have to understand its tangled history.
That’s not just true in this situation. No issue that grips public discussion – gun control, the War on (Some People’s) Drugs, foreign policy – erupts out of nowhere, nor does it exist in a vacuum. It has a history, often a “tangled” one (often involving race, too), that we’d do better to understand if we hope to deal with them in a constructive way.

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