(La Piazza Pizzeria/Flickr)
(La Piazza Pizzeria/Flickr)

The East Bay Express chose one heckuva startling headline for its article examining the fight over Measure N — Richmond’s penny-per-ounce tax on soda and sugar sweetened beverages that was defeated last November. “Race Baiting in Richmond” alleges that big business used race to fracture Richmond’s progressive community in its ultimately successful campaign to defeat the tax.

The lengthy and detailed article makes clear that race was already a factor in the anti-soda tax movement before the soda industry — and its dollars — arrived in Richmond last summer. From the East Bay Express:

Some opponents of the tax had alleged that it was racist, arguing that it would unfairly harm low-income residents in the city. And the No on Measure N campaign, bankrolled by large corporations that make a fortune from selling cheap soda to low-income consumers, nurtured that sentiment. Indeed, there is evidence that the beverage association helped keep race at the forefront of the campaign as part of a strategy that exploited Richmond’s existing tensions. And after spending at least $2.7 million — believed to be a record in East Bay politics — against Measure N, the beverage industry emerged victorious as the soda tax was beaten soundly.

Meanwhile, proponents of the tax made arguments about how the tax would fund better health programs for Richmond low income children and teens, including plans to build more sports fields, but to little avail, says the Express:

… (T)he health debate was ultimately drowned out in the election by arguments related to race and class. And that’s not unusual for Richmond: It might be one of the few cities in the country that has a history of black leaders calling white liberals “racists” and of contending that progressive ideas hurt people of color. For example, black politicians in town, like Councilman Nat Bates, have fought for years against environmentalists who oppose Chevron’s plans to expand its massive refinery. Bates and other black leaders in the city have contended that blocking Chevron could cost African-Americans jobs and hurt Richmond’s economy.

From there, the Express examines individual members of the Richmond City Council and their positions on Measure N in detail — and relates those positions to the larger political picture in the community. It’s a fascinating read. In its wrap up, the Express sounds a cautionary note:

… (T)he beverage industry discovered a winning formula in Richmond last year that it might be able to replicate elsewhere — an argument that the costs associated with taxes or governmental regulation on Big Business are “regressive” because they will merely be passed onto to low-income residents. And if that were to happen, it could drive a wedge through traditional Democratic constituencies in many communities, with blacks and Latinos opposing their longtime political allies — progressives and environmentalists — just like they did in Richmond.

It is with some irony then, that we look to news from New York City today. The beverage industry has filed suit against the city’s limit on sizes of sugar sweetened beverages, which is set to go into effect in March. Yesterday, the parties were in court with the beverage industry asking a judge for a stay on the ban until the lawsuit can be resolved.

Now we learn that the beverage industry has a surprising friend in this fight: the NAACP. The civil rights group has filed an amicus brief in support of the lawsuit. From the New York Times:

In its brief, the N.A.A.C.P. conceded that obesity was a significant problem among blacks and Hispanics. But the group urged the city to create a more holistic program to attack the problem, including an increase in financing for physical education programs in public schools.

Mr. Bloomberg’s plan, the brief argued, would disproportionately hurt minority-owned small businesses, which faced competition from larger convenience stores like 7-Eleven that would be exempt from the soda restrictions because of a quirk in New York’s regulatory structure.

“At its worst, the ban arbitrarily discriminates against citizens and small-business owners in African-American and Hispanic communities,” the brief said.

Public health advocates say a soda tax is one useful lever in the fight against obesity. Back in Richmond, the Express says now-retired Richmond city councilman Jeff Ritterman, who led the Measure N charge, is undeterred and talking about a possible statewide initiative.

Two Soda Stories: Richmond Tax Post-Mortem, New Ally in NYC Ban 25 January,2013Lisa Aliferis

  • The Goon Squad

    Don’t live in Richmond but drive through there 3 or 4 times per week and often stop for gas and/or a soda. Not anymore. Many reactions might be who cares about my couple of hundred dollars of business a month but I vote with my dollar and only stopped there to spend money in a city that obviously needs it. My few hundred dollars will no go to a deserving community.

  • AlgorithmicAnalyst

    Of course big business used race-baiting to buy the Richmond elections. What kind of an idiot wrote this article?

  • Djd1950

    I do live in Richmond, and I voted against the measure because there was absolutely NO guarantee – not ONE word – that the revenue was going to be used for health purposes. Those health-related uses were advisory to future councils, who could have used the money for any purpose. Having lived in Richmond for 20 years, I did not find that reassuring. If it HAD been tied to those health-related activities and programs I would have supported it. The proponents lost at least some possible support because of the way the measure was drafted, having nothing to do with the power of the beverage industry or race.


Lisa Aliferis

Lisa Aliferis is the founding editor of KQED’s State of Health blog. Since 2011, she’s been writing and editing stories for the site. Before taking up blogging, she toiled for many years (more than we can count) producing health stories for television, including Dateline NBC and San Francisco’s CBS affiliate, KPIX-TV. She also wrote up a handy guide to the Affordable Care Act, especially for Californians. Her work has been honored for many awards. Most recently she was a finalist for “Best Topical Reporting” from the Online News Association. You can follow her on Twitter: @laliferis

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