Lists of Black-Owned Restaurants Are a Start, but They’re Obviously Not Enough

It’s been nearly two weeks of police violence in response to protests over the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, and the unrest shows no sign of stopping. Despite curfews, tear gas, and arrests, protesters continue to march, and now, governments are beginning to listen to their demands. There is also renewed interest in all the ways non-black people can support the black community, whether it’s by asking politicians to repeal racist laws, or just by supporting black-owned businesses. The latter instinct has led to the spawning of lists and ad-hoc spreadsheets chronicling black-owned restaurants across the country.

Encouraging people to spend their money at black-owned restaurants seems like a direct way to effect change under capitalism, given the historic and systemic lack of resources afforded to black communities and black business owners. Black and brown-owned restaurants are more than three times as likely to be denied loans than white-owned businesses. “A lot of us have had to build our businesses from scratch, and that may be through personal savings and loans, through family members, credit cards, or we have refinanced our homes,” Evelyn Shelton, owner of Evelyn’s Food Love, told Eater in a piece about how black women in the restaurant industry would be disproportionally affected by COVID-19. “We are in uniquely different positions when we start, which makes where we are now even more difficult.”

The creation of the black-owned business lists is one way to show support outright. “It came from a place of deep frustration,” Kat Hong said of creating a spreadsheet for black-owned restaurants in LA over the weekend. “I was frustrated that the government wasn’t doing more to protect Black people. Frustrated that I don’t have the funds to make huge donations, and that with all of the information we’re constantly being inundated with, it’s hard to know where our dollars would be best spent anyway.”

Hong is an editorial assistant for The Infatuation, and indeed many of the new spreadsheets that have circulated most widely over the last week have been started by those working in food journalism, though they’ve now pivoted to being almost entirely crowdsourced. The New Yorker’s food critic Hannah Goldfield is helming New York’s; San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho started the Bay Area’s; journalist Zachary Fagenson spearheaded Miami’s; and food writer (and Eater contributor) Naomi Tomky started Seattle’s. Many other lists and guides are anonymous, created by activists and other supporters, such as a list of black-owned wineries by McBride Sisters, or this list of restaurants in Richmond, Virginia by community leaders and the local tourism organization. There are so many, there is now a list of all the lists, both spreadsheets and published articles.

It’s striking that many of the most recent circulated lists were not created by black people. “That shouldn’t be the case,” says Hong. Which is not to say this is the first time someone has thought to create this kind of database: Black people have been doing this work for ages, whether through websites, apps, and directories of black-owned businesses; the famous Green Book guide of businesses that would be welcoming of black patrons; or Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League. These resources existed, and still exist, to foster community, support, and safe spaces for both business owners and customers.

The fact that these spreadsheets are spreading with such speed in non-black spaces speaks to the power these protests have had, but also to one of the reasons why black-owned restaurants have been considered by non-black patrons as non-mainstream spaces, rather than fully integral parts of any community’s dining landscape: Food media is very, very white, and while Hong’s and others’ positions in food media give their spreadsheets reach and authority, they’re also a symptom of a white supremacist culture that relies on non-black people to bestow wider cultural legitimacy on black-owned restaurants. (The same can often be said for the ways white diners view most restaurants owned by people of color and serving non European cuisine.)

“I had some concerns in making it because I think things like this can make people feel like they’ve ‘done something about racism’ when, really, thinking about where you spend your money is just this one, tiny part of the work that needs to be done,” said Naomi Tomky, who created the Seattle list. To that end, she made sure to include other anti-racist resources alongside the list of restaurants, hoping that the existence of the list would also make people question why it needs to exist in the first place. “Without even leaving the food side of this, asking yourself why you didn’t already eat at these places — and the systemic racism inherent in those reasons — is a good second step.”

But there’s also worry from black writers that these new lists erase ones created by and for the community, or about outright plagiarism of work that’s already been done by black people. Gabby Beckford, a black travel writer, wrote a list of black-owned restaurants in San Diego last fall, but she recently watched as non-black creators repurposed her list without credit, and as larger publications credited those creators instead. “The few that repurposed my list in order, word for word, concede 100 percent to using it and credited me only after the fact when I called them out,” she told Eater. She recently republished her list, with even more restaurants.

The lists come at a time when eating “in” is still a nebulous concept. In the midst of social unrest, there is also an ongoing pandemic, and while restaurants in many states have opened up outdoor dining areas or indoor dining rooms, there are often still restrictions on how many people are allowed inside, and lots of restaurants are still only serving delivery and takeout, or remain closed. Across the country, black and POC-owned restaurants are at greater risk of closure due to the pandemic. Just 12 percent of black and Latinx-owned businesses who applied for PPP loans received what they asked for, and the Center For Responsible Lending determined that 95 percent of black-owned businesses “stand close to no chance of receiving a PPP loan through a mainstream bank or credit union.” It’s a catch-22: Many black and Latinx-owned businesses never previously sought out loans, because of historically discriminatory banking practices, but often, banks only considered PPP loans from existing customers.

Between the pandemic, the protests, and the economic crash that’s disproportionately affected people of color and the food service industry, supporting black-owned restaurants is crucial. But aside from that, everyone agrees that reading a list is the lowest bar to clear when it comes to engagement with black-owned restaurants, and it’s highly likely that after a few weeks, many who promised to add black-owned restaurants into their restaurant rotations will fall back into old patterns. “The absurdity of these lists is the suggestion that dining at a black-owned business in any way addresses the brutal and deadly force that police continue to unleash on black people,” writes Ruth Gebreyesus for KQED. “At best, it scratches the itch of ego-driven guilt.”

Hong hopes that “in addition to using our spending power, when it comes to supporting black-owned restaurants, using our voices and platforms is just as vital. They will be crucial for not just their survival, but their ability to flourish.” Which means not just listing black-owned restaurants, but telling their stories, including them in lists and profiles where blackness isn’t the frame, and especially paying black writers to do that work. Because while the short-term goal is to infuse these businesses with cash, the long-term goal is to make sure they are viewed as essential parts of their communities by non-black people. That’s why Beckford said she sought to include context and history in her piece, not just phone numbers. “What I learned from going into these restaurants and emailing back and forth with these owners is that building a relationship and learning the stories of these businesses is what secures long-term customers,” she said. “And what I think will help generally decenter whiteness from these customers’ lives.”

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