TheGrio Daily

The Racist History of Government Cheese

Episode 166
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“Cheese that had been bought to create that white middle-class, it was cheese that had been used to rob African Americans of their land.” World famous wypipologist Michael Harriot recounts how the New Deal left Black people out. The same U.S. government that alienated Black people from subsidized mortgage programs, turned around and created programs that propped up wypipo-owned farms.

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Announcer: You are now listening to theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, Black Culture Amplified. 

Michael Harriot: A few weeks ago, a federal jury found that several U. S. egg suppliers had conspired to basically fix the price of eggs. So you remember when the price of eggs skyrocketed? Well, that wasn’t because of the supply chain. That wasn’t because, you know, chickens had stopped having sex. It was because of capitalism. And if you’re wondering what that has to do with race or why so on this podcast, well, that’s why I want to welcome you to theGrio Daily, the only podcast that will explain what racism has to do with the price of milk. 

I’m world world-famous wypipologist, Michael Harriot, and this is theGrio Daily.

According to the Associated Press, several large food manufacturing companies, including Kraft’s Food Global and the Kellogg Company, conspired to fix the price of eggs and the price of eggs was so high that everybody, they had everybody going out and buying chickens, because you know, how are you going to make your macaroni and cheese without eggs? 

And it wasn’t just these farms and you know, this might seem like a separate incident, but I want to explain to you, you know, how this has happened before and what this has to do with race. So to understand how this happened, we got to go all the way back to the Great Depression. Well, we really, really, we got to go further back than the Great Depression. We got to go back to sharecropping. After slavery, remember, a lot of Black people were sharecropping and, you know, we like to think of sharecropping as just Black people on farms, you know, picking cotton. But the reason so many Black people were involved in sharecropping was because it was a path to land ownership, which was important back then, and a lot of people actually got that land.

When the Great Depression happened, remember first there was World War I, and then the stock market crashed, and the Great Depression happened. And because of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, created a program, the largest government program in the history of the world, called the New Deal, which largely left Black people out of it.

Black people weren’t allowed to participate, for instance, in the mortgages that the homeowner’s loan corporation got. And the reason they weren’t was because of this policy called redlining. The government didn’t actually give people the money for these mortgages. What they did is they told banks that, hey, “We will guarantee the loans of the people who you lend money to if it’s for a mortgage, but they can’t be in these neighborhoods,” and they created these maps.

And the places where Black people lived were in red areas. Thus the term “redlining.” Well, a term we don’t hear about often is “farm lining.” And how that same policy excluded a lot of Black people, many Black people. So remember, Black people were working a lot on farms as sharecroppers. Well, because of the New Deal, the federal government set aside millions of dollars, which would be billions today, um, for agricultural needs.

And the same policy, the same laws that created the Homeowners Loan Corporation created this government program called the Commodity Credit Corporation. The Commodity Credit Corporation basically authorized banks to, state banks, to make loans to farmers. They were going to prop up the farm industry. And one of the ways they did that was by offering loans.

Well, these farmers often wanted as much money as they could get so they would include the land that they had made contracts with sharecroppers on in their application for loans. So now the federal government and their records said that the white people owned this land, even though they had made deals with sharecroppers.

And when the white farmers got these loans, the Black farmers couldn’t, even if the Black farmers owned land, they couldn’t get these loans. Uh, there’s a history of the USDA denying Black farmers loans, which is why they were are supposed to compensate them now for that history of discrimination, but we won’t get into that right now But when the white farmers got these but this money this money was supposed to go to mechanizing farms, raising crops, and so they kicked the Black sharecroppers off the land because now they had money to buy machines and to pay workers that could do this.

And so the Black farmers lost the land that they had worked for for sometimes decades. Um, and all of these were under the Reconstruction Act that was part of the New Deal, the Reconstruction Finance Act. And one of the other things that the New Deal did was to create a program called Food Stamps. Now what Food Stamps did was, you know, because a lot of America was poor in some areas, the poverty rate was as much as 90%. It helped people buy food, but the food that was produced by these white farmers who had kicked Black people off their land, who had received money that Black people couldn’t get, even though Black people had paid into the tax base, those commodities, those products produced by those white farms, were given priority under food stamps.

So you could buy certain foods with food stamps, but if you bought cheese, if you bought milks, if you bought eggs, products produced by white dairy farmers predominantly in the Midwest, you could buy it for as much as a penny per pound. And cheese. was one of these. And then, after World War II, when those white Midwest farmers returned from fighting, they pumped more money into these farm economies, these white-owned farms, to create what they would call the middle class.

And how did they do that? They went back to that Food Stamp program. They went back to that Commodity Credit Corporation. But this time, they had a slight little twist. The government was just going to buy the cheese produced by these dairy farmers to lower the price of cheese, to lower the price of dairy products. So they bought millions of pounds of cheese and what did they do with them? Literally nothing. They put them in underground bunkers in 35 states all around the country. They just bought cheese from white people and put it in underground bunkers. Now the food stamp program was still going on, so you could still get some of this cheese if you were poor, some of this milk if you were poor, some of the eggs if you were poor, which gave these white farmers wads of money which they put into their farms and they produce more cheese. So, over the next 50 years, it was so much cheese and the refrigeration costs in these underground bunkers were so high, that by the 1980s, they had to figure out what to do with all these cheese. By the 1980s, it was one point three billion pounds of cheese that they had bought from these white farmers to create this white middle class in the Midwest.

And they had used the tax money that was paid into by Black people, even though Black people didn’t benefit. So what they did was to make that food stamp program more lucrative for the white farmers. They created SNAP, they created WIC, that’s why you can get milk and cheese. Here’s a nice tidbit, they started funding loans for businesses and restaurants, especially ones that sold cheeseburgers, which was created in the 1920s after this program went into effect, right? So, you got cheese, you got ground beef that was raised on these farms, and those products became popular partly because they were cheap and they were cheap, partly because they were subsidized by the federal government and Black people’s tax dollars. Well, it all came to a head in the 1980s when the Reagan administration realized we’re gonna have to do something about all these, all this cheese. We don’t have any place to store it. The refrigeration costs are high. And so the first idea that they had was to dump it all into the ocean. And then someone came up with another idea. Why don’t we just give it away to poor people, especially in urban areas? And you know what “urban” means. We know what “urban” means. It means Black people. 

Instead of just getting cheese on food stamps, instead of just getting this milk and eggs on food stamps, they just started giving it to USDA departments in urban areas. And they would have like cheese lines, bread lines, milk lines. And they gave away this cheese that was stored in these underground bunkers.

And it became infamous and almost part of the culture known as government cheese. Now this cheese wasn’t some cheese that they were, the government was making and giving away. It was cheese that had been bought to create that white middle class, it was cheese that had been used to rob African Americans of their land. It was cheese that had created an inequality in America that we now called the wealth gap. And we, we like to think of the wealth gap as something that was created because of redlining, because of racism, because of Jim Crow. But in a lot of instances it was created by the government and intentionally used to build that white middle class.

And to be clear, Black farmers, Black people didn’t get any benefit from this program except some free cheese. While the white people got generational wealth, while the white people got what was essentially large family-owned businesses that produced a product that nobody was really buying, that the government was purchasing just to enrich those families.

And that’s how you increase a wealth gap, that’s how you increase a wage disparity, that’s how you increase the value of white-owned land and decrease the value of Black-owned land. And that is also Why you have to keep listening to this podcast. That’s why you got to download that Grio app. And that’s why you got to tell a friend about theGrio Daily.

And that’s also why we leave you with a Black saying, and today’s Black saying is what does racism have to do with the price of cheese? Well, you see, and we’ll see you next time on theGrio Daily.

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Michael Harriot is an economist, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His New York Times bestseller Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America is available everywhere books are sold.

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