Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

06.03.13

The Economic History of Stereotypes

What we read into racist messages isn't necessarily what others saw when they were created

Last week, professional golfer Sergio Garcia joked about having Tiger Woods for dinner and serving him fried chicken.  Oh, ho, ho!  Black people sure do love that fried chicken, don't they?  Garcia has since apologized, but the uneasiness remains.  How can a professional in this day and age think it's okay to make racist jokes in public?  

We'll never know what he was thinking, except that whatever it was, it was pretty stupid.  So NPR turns to a question that we possibly can answer: where did this stereotype come from, anyway?

After all, it's a fairly weird stereotype.  I mean, while I haven't done a survey, I'm sure that most black people love fried chicken, because everyone loves fried chicken except vegetarians and women from New York who have convinced themselves that they don't like anything with more than 15 calories.  Fried chicken is sublimely delicious when done right, and even when it's done wrong, it's not bad.  How did people get the idea that loving tender, crispy fried chicken was some strange thing that only racial minorities do?

I asked Claire Schmidt for help. She's a professor at the University of Missouri who studies race and folklore. Schmidt said chickens had long been a part of Southern diets, but they had particular utility for slaves. They were cheap, easy to feed and a good source of meat.

But then, Schmidt says, came Birth of a Nation.

D.W. Griffith's seminal and supremely racist 1915 silent movie about the supposedly heroic founding of the Ku Klux Klan was a huge sensation when it debuted. One scene in the three-hor features a group of actors portraying shiftless black elected officials acting rowdy and crudely in a legislative hall. (The message to the audience: These are the dangers of letting blacks vote.) Some of the legislators are shown drinking. Others had their feet kicked up on their desks. And one of them was very ostentatiously eating fried chicken.

"That image really solidified the way white people thought of black people and fried chicken," Schmidt said.

This is a very interesting theory.  There's only one problem: while she may be right that this bizarre stereotype may be traceable back to Griffith, I think she's misreading the significance of the chicken in that scene.  And arguably the correct reading is even more racist than what she suggests.

Until World War II, chicken was not cheap; it was more expensive than beef.  Of course, we don't have good price data for the pre-Civil War south, but given the relative scarcity of meat in 19th century diets, I'm pretty skeptical that plantation owners were giving their slaves a lot of chicken.  At any rate, by the time DW Griffith made that movie, chicken was definitely not something that poor people saw a lot of.  Chickens were mostly kept for eggs, not meat.  And fried chicken, which was made using a tender young fryer rather than a stringy old hen that had given up laying, was especially expensive.  As people began to eat more meat, it was generally beef or pork.  The opening of western grazing lands and the great stockyard complexes of the midwest had made beef the relatively cheap meat.  Cookbooks as late as 1950 contain instructions for making "mock chicken" dishes using . . . veal.

That's why Herbert Hoover promised "a chicken in every pot"; it was the equivalent of promising filet mignon in every refrigerator.  This all changed after World War II, when people started industrially farming chickens, stacking them on top of each other and forcing rapid growth.  The price of chicken dropped precipitously, making it much more ubiquitous than it was in the prewar era.  Chicken went from a special treat for Sunday dinner to a staple of the American table.

So while she may well be right about Birth of a Nation establishing this stereotype, I think she's reading the racist message backwards.  DW Griffith was not suggesting that black legislators during reconstruction were dragging their poor people food into office with them.  Rather, eating fried chicken showed them getting above their station--gorging on luxury foods.  That is the message that audiences in 1915 would have read into that scene.

It's still racist, of course--arguably more racist than her reading.  So I'm not criticizing her, and I'm certainly not defending DW Griffith's execrable opinions.  Rather, I'm pointing out how unnoticed economic changes can fairly radically change our reading of historical work.  That scene was written, and understood by its audience, in a racist way.  But it's not the racist message that we now see, because to us, a big steak or a Maine lobster, not a drumstick, is the ultimate luxury meat.