Don’t Be A Menace To South Central…

Media floats the term "food apartheid" to describe South Central fast food ban

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed a law that would ban fast-food restaurants from opening new outlets in South Los Angeles. Activists who approve of the ban are harnessing phrases like “food apartheid” and “nutritional segregation” to describe the disparity in qualities of food products (and their availability) in different neighborhoods. And the media is picking up these catchy phrases like shiny rhetorical baubles.

Check out Karl Vick’s recent article in the Washington Post:

The proposed ordinance, which takes a page from boutique communities that turn up their noses at franchises, is supported by nutritionists, frustrated residents and community activists who call restrictive zoning an appropriate response to “food apartheid.”

“There’s one set of food for one part of the city, another set of food for another part of the city, and it’s very stratified that way,” said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, executive director of Community Coalition, based in South-Central.

The activist group has focused on land use in the economically depressed neighborhoods south of downtown, working to shutter 200 liquor stores and a dozen motels on the premise that “nuisance businesses” encourage violence and crime while crowding out wholesome alternatives. The fresh, healthful fare that defines “California cuisine” remains almost impossible to find on a gritty landscape of corner carryouts and franchises.

It’s clear from the article that “food apartheid” is a phrase that’s actually employed by activists like Harris-Dawson. Still, it’s worth asking why Vick used a loaded term without direct attribution. (Articles from the WSJ and the LAT both use other sources, and the phrase is nowhere to be seen.)

Yesterday, when the Guardian ran a digest version of the WaPo article, “food apartheid” and Harris-Dawson popped up again, this time with obesity rates wedged in between:

Activists supporting the yearlong ban tout the new rule as an end to “food apartheid” and a fix for rising childhood obesity rates in the neighbourhood.

Nearly one-third of residents in the city’s south are obese, compared with 19% for the overall Los Angeles area and 14% in the wealthier west side area.

“There’s one set of food for one part of the city, another set of food for another part of the city, and it’s very stratified that way,” Marqueece Harris-Dawson, a community leader in south Los Angeles, told the Washington Post this month.

The phrase has become unmoored from its presumed source, but who’s measuring?

CNN didn’t do much better, introducing a July 15 segment on American Morning by putting it out front and center: “Plus, food apartheid. One woman’s crusade to get burgers and fries out of the inner city.” Later in the segment, the program floated the quote without any specific attribution, saying merely, “Critics call it ‘food apartheid’.”

Using activist-speak like “food apartheid” as a blanket descriptive phrase seems like a serious judgment lapse on the press’s part. It’s particularly odd given the historical significance of the word apartheid; given these activists’ deliberate and callow attempts to invite a comparison between South Africa’s state-supported segregation policies and subpar dining choices in low-income Los Angeles. I’ve seen phrases like “velvet-rope apartheid” used flippantly in reference to exclusive clubs that discriminate between patrons at the door, which is perhaps only offensive in its trivial (and random) co-opting of the word, presumably by a journalist looking for a clever turn of phrase.

But the term “food apartheid,” which addresses the race dynamics of urban planning in a city that has had its share of race-related crucible moments, seems, if not any more offensive, at least more semantically dangerous in its meaningful re-appropriation. Of course, by encasing the phrase in phantom quotes—courtesy of an activist who would love to get it in print or on air—reporters get a free pass from considering its implications. But they shouldn’t.

The term “food apartheid” brings to mind the evolution of the term “partial-birth abortion.” Initially coined by an activist, “partial-birth abortion” became a ubiquitous phrase that inserted itself into the national lexicon (in the form of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act). “Food apartheid” or “nutritional segregation” may never make it into the name of a law. But it still seems irresponsible to play a game of telephone with these obviously loaded terms.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.