In 1925 a Utah businessman having just sold his car dealership was looking for a new venture. Having a good sense of his market he moved from selling cars into selling fried chicken.
He opened a cabaret restaurant and called it “The Coon Chicken Inn”.
The spot’s décor featured a black face minstrel, complete with over-sized grin, bright red lips, and a winking eye. The icon was plastered on all of its menus, the napkins, the catering delivery trucks, and then there was the front door. Patrons entered the establishment by walking through the mouth of a gigantic black-faced minstrel head.
The owner wasn’t making business choices based in some specific hatred for any one person, or out of spite toward a group of people, he was just looking for something he thought would work. Something that would sell. And it did.
The place was popular enough in Utah that the owners were able to open franchises in Portland and Seattle. Now this is not to say that no one thought it offensive or wrong. In fact the NAACP sued the restaurant claiming their theme was racist. Because it was. But the owners, and the general white population, simply didn’t care.
In response, and to avoid further litigation, the Coon chicken Inn painted the black-face blue.
When sued for being racist, the ownership chose a technicality sort of solution rather than ending the racism. The NAACP were not pleased but the courts were satisfied and the local public never cared in the first place. People kept eating there till 1957.
Black face has never not been racist, but it was, and has been, acceptable by the general white American public for more than a century. Racism was not just in the South, nor was it just the way some people treated black people. Racism, or anti-blackness, was a pervasive part of American culture- like apple pie and baseball.
That does not go away over night. The ripple effect carries consequences well into our day and when we, us now, are confronted with those consequences we would do well to consider for whom we are concerned. Are we more worried about the careers of white politicians or the day to day lives and status of black people?