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Race-Baiting in Richmond

How Big Business used race to drive a wedge through Richmond's progressive community — and why you should be concerned about it.



By November, the headquarters for the campaign against the soda tax had become a familiar fixture in the Richmond cityscape. The office sat directly across from City Hall, and every window was plastered with bright red and yellow signs that read "NO on N." Inside, the space felt temporary. There were no posters on the walls. Cardboard boxes leaned against the corners of the office, holding stacks of glossy fliers, and most of the furniture was foldable. The previous tenant had left two red children's bikes in a corner, and no one had bothered to move them.

On most days, around 3 p.m., the employees — mostly young African-Americans and Latinos — poured into the office, sometimes holding 32-ounce Slurpees or cans of Grape Fanta. Nine workers at a time then sat down at desks in front of mini laptops, while an automated machine connected them to the phone numbers of Richmond residents. When someone answered, the workers read from a script: "My name is ­­­­_________. I am calling on behalf of No on Measure N — the campaign against the unfair soda tax." The machines were capable of making more than 120 phone calls an hour, and during each five-hour shift, the nine workers dialed thousands of numbers.

The No on Measure N workers' paychecks were signed by political consultant Barnes Mosher Whitehurst Lauter & Partners (BMWL), which had been hired by the American Beverage Association — an industry trade group representing PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper, Snapple, and other big companies. The beverage industry set up shop in Richmond just after the city council's progressive majority decided to put Measure N, a proposed one-cent-per-ounce tax on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, on the November 2012 ballot.

By the time that Big Soda had arrived, the issue of race was already a factor in the campaign. 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.

In retrospect, BMWL & Partners and the beverage industry had made their intentions clear to anyone who was paying attention. Two of their first forays in the community were at Cinco de Mayo, a popular Latino celebration, and Juneteenth, an event that commemorates the anniversary of African-American emancipation from slavery. The anti-soda-tax campaign then quickly teamed up with black politicians and leaders who labeled Measure N as "regressive" and "racist." Some had described the white liberals who supported the tax in the same way. "It is an overbroad tax that is going to have regressive effects and raise the cost of living and grocery bills," said Chuck Finnie of BMWL & Partners, summing up the No on Measure N messaging.

The irony, of course, was that the proceeds from Measure N were to fund programs designed to help low-income youth combat obesity. One-third of Latino and African-American children in Richmond are obese, and as that generation reaches adulthood, obesity will cause the early deaths of many of them, according to a Fitnessgram study that came out in 2010. The connection between obesity and soda, in fact, is undeniable to many public health advocates. Sodas don't satiate appetites like other junk food, and so it's easy to overindulge. Each twenty-ounce Sprite contains twenty teaspoons of sugar.

"When I think back to when I was a boy, a Coke or a Pepsi came in an eight-ounce bottle, and I remember very well that when you were lucky enough to get one of those things, you drank the eight ounces and the event was over," Kelly Brownell, a prominent health advocate said during the campaign at a lecture to UC Berkeley students. "You didn't go have another."

But the 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.

In addition, BMWL & Partners was well aware of the racial divide within the city and deftly exploited it. Along with running the anti-soda-tax campaign on behalf of the beverage industry, BMWL & Partners worked with Chevron in 2012 as part of the oil giant's $1 million effort to elect Chevron-friendly candidates running for the city council, including Bates.

Richmond is unique because of its longstanding issues surrounding race, but the strategies employed by the anti-Measure N campaign have the potential to be repeated in other communities, particularly in those that attempt to levy taxes on large corporations that have a history of harming human health and the environment.