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12/06/2018 05:45 EST

The Troubling Link Between Milk And Racism

White supremacists claim they’re just trolling liberals with their milk love, but scholars say there’s history behind this.

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A young man with neo-Nazi tattoos spits milk toward the video camera. Another man, holding a jug of milk, says, “You might not like it, but this is the face of white nationalism.” 

The group of men were gathered to protest an anti-Trump video installation, “He Will Not Divide Us,” in Queens, New York, in February 2017.

Following the protest in New York, depictions of milk alongside white nationalism went viral. Figures affiliated with the alt-right, including Richard Spencer and Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet, added milk emojis to their Twitter display names and the hashtag “#MilkTwitter” was used as a dumping ground for racist trolls. Later in 2017, Lucian Wintrich, a former correspondent for the right-wing news blog Gateway Pundit who has appeared on a white nationalist podcast, drank from a glass of milk as protesters heckled him during a speech.

These and other incidents have been described as evidence that some white supremacists are co-opting cow’s milk as a symbol of their belief that white people are wholesome and pure. 

Right-wing news sites like Breitbart have mocked that suggestion. Those who noted milk’s popularity with white supremacists have been taunted as fools who fell for what was just a prank that was not meant to be taken seriously.

But whether or not the alt-right was indulging in a trolling exercise, some academics say these events are part of a murky history involving cow’s milk. 

Iselin Gambert, an associate professor of legal research and writing at George Washington University in Washington, is co-authoring a forthcoming paper that argues milk has long been used as a symbol for and tool of white supremacy. (A draft version can be read online.)

Animal milk products, Gambert told HuffPost, have become ubiquitous around the globe, including in regions with little or no history of a dairy industry. She noted the dairy industry has long marketed milk as universally healthy, even though roughly 65 percent of the world’s population has a reduced ability after infancy to digest lactose found in unprocessed milk.

Lactose intolerance is complex and very difficult to measure, but several studies, including a 2010 report produced for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, have found that people of color are more likely to report symptoms of lactose intolerance.

Yet milk and milk products have formed the backbone of some food initiatives in the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program and Special Milk Program all provide milk to children in public and nonprofit private schools. It’s a policy that has been criticized by law professor Andrea Freeman for pushing harmful amounts of saturated fats into the diets of children and disproportionately affecting communities of color.

Chad Baker/Jason Reed/Ryan McVay via Getty Images
Milk has been promoted by the U.S. government and the American dairy industry as a key part of a healthy diet.

A USDA spokesperson said the Special Milk Program allows substitutions to be made for children who cannot consume milk if a parent or guardian submits a request in writing. And the National Dairy Council (NDC), a lobbying group for the dairy industry, echoed that, saying that under the federal programs, schools will provide non-dairy milk substitutes to children who report trouble digesting milk.

However, the NDC spokesperson also suggested that more people can drink milk than some critics argue. “In American culture today, limited lactose digestion is common but variable among people of African-American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American descent, but not always a reason to avoid dairy foods,” the spokesperson told HuffPost.

The dairy industry has been pushing the idea of milk as an integral part of a healthy diet for a long time. In her book Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink, sociologist Melanie Dupuis cites an NDC publication distributed in the 1920s that quotes a nutritionist saying, “People who have an appreciation for art, literature and music, who are progressive in science and every activity of human intellect are the people who have used liberal amounts of milk and its products.”

Dupuis’ book describes how the white beverage was symbolically linked in the early 20th century to white-skinned people, who were better able to digest it due to a genetic mutation known as lactase persistence. “By declaring milk perfect,” she wrote, “white northern Europeans announced their own perfection.”

The NDC declined to comment on industry marketing materials cited in the various studies. “Milk drinking is not just a practice of Western culture,” the spokesperson told HuffPost, “but a shared part of human existence around the world.”

Gambert stressed that her research should not be construed to insinuate that people who drink dairy milk are in any way racist or that milk itself is inherently bigoted. But the issues in milk’s history, she said, make its co-option as a symbol of white nationalism, whether ironic or not, all the more significant. 

“Milk is different than other things, which may be more randomly chosen. There is the reality that milk has historical ties to being used in racist practices,” she said.

“There are those who find it funny to use milk as a symbol of white nationalism and tweet offensive content under the hashtag #milktwitter to provoke people,” said Gambert. “But saying it’s all a prank doesn’t mean that milk isn’t being used to support racist beliefs.”

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