New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has, he says, “always had a soft spot in my heart for the NAACP.” He nonetheless wondered in his weekly radio address last Friday “how they can look themselves in a mirror knowing they are hurting, deliberately, the life expectancy and the quality of life for the people that they’re supposed to serve.” Their offense was to file an amicus brief, along with the Hispanic Federation (who, according to Bloomberg, have “sold their souls”), in support of a legal challenge to his ban on certain large sugar-sweetened beverages that is set to take effect on March 12.
Bloomberg is not alone in his bewilderment at the alliance. “That the NAACP, America’s oldest and most august civil rights organization, and the federation, an umbrella of about 100 Hispanic groups in the American north-east, should jump into bed with soda and fast food multinationals is deeply puzzling,” mused the British Guardian. A report in the New York Times offered a possible explanation, noting that Coca-Cola has donated thousands of dollars to a health-education program sponsored by the NAACP and that the former president of the Hispanic Federation recently took a job with the soda company. A writer at Gawker accused the NAACP of being “co-opted by corporate interests” and allowing themselves to be used for “corporate blackwashing.” Hazel Dukes, the president of the NAACP New York conference insists that’s not the case. “No one buys the NAACP,” she told the AP. “The issue is fairness.”
The organizations say that the rule will have a disparate impact on minority-owned businesses and that it “disproportionately affects freedom of choice in low-income communities,” whose residents tend to drink more soda than wealthier Americans do. The latter effect is precisely the point for Bloomberg: Black and Hispanic New Yorkers are much more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic whites, and so they are the people most in need of being forced to refrain from purchasing more than 16 ounces of soda in a single container. But the former represents an unintended consequence of the way in which the ban applies to some businesses and not others.
The rule restricts beverage sales only in “food-service establishments” regulated by the city health department. This means that businesses that are more likely to be minority-owned and operated, such as street carts, delis, and fast-food restaurants, will be prohibited from selling large soft drinks, but supermarkets, gas stations, and chain convenience stores will be free to continue to offer them. So if a customer gets a slice from a pizza shop in Harlem he won’t be able to find a 20-ounce bottle of Pepsi on the premises, but there’s nothing to prevent him from walking next door to the 7/11 to buy one. As Dukes put it in a press release defending the NAACP’s position, “You can’t be serious about banning big sodas when you have a loophole for Big Gulps.”
And not all types of sugary drinks are equal in Bloomberg’s eyes, either. Alcoholic beverages, fruit juice, and dairy-based products are exempt. So Starbucks can go on serving 610-calorie venti iced white chocolate mochas with whip cream on top, but a Coke with fewer than half the calories is verboten.