Soul Food: Not So Good for the Body

In an opinion piece for the New York Sun, cultural critic John McWhorter argues that inner-city black people have higher rates of obesity and diabetes than whites because their palates are just trained to favor greasy grub—no matter how much affordable, fresh produce they have at their fingertips. Growing up black in Philadelphia, McWhorter writes, he “learned the joy of fried chicken” and other unhealthy foods like Jimmy Dean “Seriously Hot” breakfast sausage and Lay’s BBQ chips, all of which he says he still craves at least once a week, despite his better judgment and his proximity to markets that offer more nutritious options. This high-fat fare provides a complicated link to his heritage:

If I am at an event where one of the main reception snacks is fried chicken drummies, it is almost certainly a black one. White people saute chard and sprinkle some herb or sauce in. Black people make collard greens with hamhocks.

I prefer the latter to the former, and will spend my life alternating between resisting and parsimoniously indulging that need for grease. My taste in food is cultural.

McWhorter (who, in a previous career as a linguist, happened to be one of my favorite college professors) is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank; he’s built his “brand” around the idea that the plight of black America is due in part to problems in black culture itself, not just in a white-dominated system. So I’m inclined to take his argument with a grain of salt (so to speak), as a logical extension of his theories on society in general. But in fact he brings up a couple of interesting cases that do indeed challenge the notion that obesity and diabetes rates are directly related to the distance to the nearest fresh-veggie purveyor:

For example, in New York, a Fairway supermarket has been thriving in West Harlem for more than 10 years overflowing with lovely and reasonably priced produce. Plenty of local black folks shop and work in it. It’s a walk away for many, and for others, there is even a shuttle service. Yet obesity is currently still rife in West Harlem, including among teenagers raised on food bought there, in a way that it is not in, say, Greenwich Village.

I have noticed the same thing in another black neighborhood in New York: a C-Town supermarket is smack in the middle, amply stocked with fresh produce at moderate prices. The average weight of people in this neighborhood is distinctly higher than on the Upper East Side, which has a C-Town supermarket as well.

Are these cases just New York-specific outliers, or might McWhorter be on to something larger? I know plenty of rather overweight white, Hispanic, and Asian folks who were raised on junky food, too, so clearly the problem is not only racial; McWhorter is definitely oversimplifying the issue somewhat. But perhaps culturally conditioned tastes aren’t given enough weight (if you will) in discussions of the nation’s obesity problem. Is it because we’re too PC these days to call out certain ethnic cuisines as unhealthy?