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.
The NAACP and the Hispanic Federation aren’t the only organizations making the argument that certain groups stand to suffer more than others under the ban. The New York Hispanic Chambers of Commerce and the Korean-American Grocers Association are among the plaintiffs in the suit against it because they see it as a threat to their members. Several city-council members whose districts are predominantly black or Hispanic have also opposed the ban. Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Democrat who represents East Harlem and part of the Bronx, co-authored an op-ed in the Huffington Post last July with fellow council member Letitia James, arguing that the ban would not achieve its purported aim and would unfairly disadvantage some small businesses.
Over the summer, before the ban was rubber-stamped by the Board of Health, a reporter from the Village Voice accompanied Mark-Viverito on a tour of Spanish Harlem to survey local business owners and residents about its likely impact on them. Nal Barak, the proprietor of Crown Fried Chicken, told the Voice that he was unhappy about the rule and thought it should apply equally to all businesses. One consumer who identified himself as “Kill Box” explained how he’d react if the mayor, whom he described as a “f***ing idiot,” attempted to limit the size of his soda: “I can just walk to the bodega down the block? Yeah — I’ll just do that; I don’t want no f***ing baby cup.”
City-council member Letitia James, of the socialist Working Families Party, dismisses the notion that opposition to the ban, which she calls “arbitrary and capricious,” implies a lack of concern for quality of life in the black community. “The issue is too complex to be solved by a simple solution such as a ban,” she tells National Review Online. She cites lack of access to health care, inadequate physical-education programs in schools, and limited parks and recreation space as other important factors. “I don’t believe that the ban will have a great effect on health outcomes, and in fact, it will hurt small businesses in the city of New York already struggling in this economy,” she says. And while some of her constituents are disappointed with her stance, she’s also hearing from business owners who don’t relish the prospect of “inspectors who come by and issue them fines that are onerous and arbitrary.” (Those fines could amount to $200 per infraction, beginning in June.)“Thank you for standing up and sympathizing with our plight,” they tell her.
It’s a plight that leaves Mayor Bloomberg unmoved, apparently, despite the “soft spot” in his heart.
— Katherine Connell is an editorial associate at National Review.