“Intent” Ethics: The “Grape Soda” Caper

Grape Soda

Little noticed when it was reported a month ago, but of special interest now that the New York Times is on record that the use of a racist slur is to be regarded as a racist act regardless of the intent of the speaker, is the decision by The New York Racing commission to ban a prominent trainer from competition for giving a horse a name that isn’t racist but apparently intending it to be a racist slur. Yes, it’s a reverse Donald McNeil! What do you say, Bret Stephens?

As Alice said in Wonderland, “Curiouser and curiouser!” The banned trainer is Eric Guillot, whose horses have earned more than $13 million in purses and have won 259 races. “Racism is completely unacceptable in all forms,” David O’Rourke, the association’s president and chief executive, said in a statement. “NYRA rejects Eric Guillot’s toxic words and divisive behavior in the strongest terms. Our racing community is diverse, and we stand for inclusion.” What were the “toxic words”?

“Grape soda.”

Yes, grape soda. I confess, I’ve used the words “grape soda.” I like grape soda; always have. But Guillot, see, named a horse “Grape Soda” after tweeting on New Year’s Day that he was giving a 3-year-old colt a “unique name in honor of a TVG analyst.” The tweet had a Black fist emoji. Apparently “grape soda,” in addition to meaning, you know, grape soda, has been used somewhere I’ve never been as a racial epithet. So bad an epithet is it that the New York Times wouldn’t dare print it in its headline: “NYRA Bars Horse Trainer For Using Racist Name.” I couldn’t find out what the “racist name” was until six paragraphs into the article. The Times didn’t even call it the “GS-word,” though it says it “can” be a racist term, presumably based on context and intent. But now, as a Times columnist discussed in a banned op-ed, the Times says intent and context doesn’t matter. If that’s true, then “Grape Soda” must be presumed to have the same meaning in the case of the horse as it is presumed to mean anywhere else, like when I say to my wife, “Hey, while you’re at 7-11, pick me up a grape soda please!” But that does not seem to be the case in this story, and the Times itself doesn’t challenge the logic that “Grape Soda” as a name for a horse is racist simply because it was dedicated to the only black horse-racing analyst. They think. Or someone thinks.

Confused? Me too, and I have some questions:

  • Does that mean that “Grape Soda” would not be a racist name if  Guillot had not alluded to a racing analyst? Or was it the emoji that made it racist? 
  • Guillot claimed he named the horse “Grape Soda” because he liked grape soda, like I do. What if he does? Could a black trainer name a horse “Grape Soda”? If intent doesn’t matter, then the black trainer shouldn’t be able to do it, right?
  • If intent does matter, then would any name given to a horse with the intent of mocking someone’s race make it a racial epithet? If Guillot sent the same tweet, but named the horse “Waldorf Salad,” would “Waldorf salad” then be considered a racial epithet? If a reporter during the Times’ current “intent doesn’t matter” era wanted to order a Waldorf salad, would he be fired? 
  • How can 7-11 continue to sell grape soda if its name is inherently racist? (Actually, my local 7-11 abruptly stopped selling grape soda a while back. Is that why?
  • If a black trainer said, “I’m naming the horse “Lawrence Welk” in honor of a TVG analyst,” and that was taken as a reference to the analyst’s race because Lawrence Welk music is renowned as the ultimate white square fare, would the black trainer be banned?
  • The Times says, “Guillot’s remarks were widely believed to have been directed at Ken Rudulph, the only African-American analyst at TVG.” Is that enough to ban someone from their livelihood—what is “widely believed”?

The whole thing is self-contradictory and confusing. The Times story goes on to explain that horse racing is almost exclusively white, and that there are persistent allegations of racism:

In July, for instance, amid the widespread tumult over the death of George Floyd in police custody, Tom VanMeter, a prominent Kentucky horse owner and sales consignor, posted a racist comment on Facebook directed at the N.F.L., whose players are predominantly Black. But the incident also brought attention to the lack of diversity at the top levels of horse racing. The Jockey Club, for example, does not have an African-American among its 128 members and has just five people of color among its 286 employees. Keeneland, which sold more than $627 million in horses last year, also does not have a single African-American executive or board member among its leadership.

But so what? If racing were teeming with black jockeys, trainers and owners and Guillot tweeted exactly the same thing and came up with exactly the same name, would that make his actions less racist, if that’s what they are?

The story has a happy ending. After Grape Soda won a race, the colt was bought for $25,000 by Lawrence Roman. He said that he had had no idea that its name was a slur until the Jockey Club contacted him and asked him to change it. So the horse was renamed Respect for All.

That’s nice. Except Roman’ chose the name to mock the hypocrisy of anti-white ideology, and thus it was intended as a racial slur.

Prove it wasn’t.

17 thoughts on ““Intent” Ethics: The “Grape Soda” Caper

  1. It won’t be long before the mere presence of anything or anyone considered white will be a slur. Given that virtually everything now has a racist intent why don’t we claim that black people who eat saltines are inherently racist because they want to eat “crackers”. I believe the use of the term white supremacist is explicitly racist, and a means to obtain a power position over another of the Caucasian race. I find the term offensive so what are my rights to control language I deem offensive? Why can’t we simply start saying anything uttered by a person of color that could be construed as an epithet should be called out.

    Perhaps the only way to end this idiocy is through the process of reductio ad absurdum.

    • Chris Marschner wrote, “Perhaps the only way to end this idiocy is through the process of reductio ad absurdum.”

      But using todays social justice standards wouldn’t doing that be considered racist if the process was in response to an argument that had been presented by anyone that’s not a white person.

  2. To understand “grape soda,” consider it an updated version of watermelon or fried chicken: something that many people, including many black people, enjoy, but something that’s often included in negative stereotypes of poor black people.

    I’m not sure what watermelon ethics are, but grape soda ethics should be similar, I think.

      • As I understand it, it came from the tendency of poor black people to buy off-brand soda, where grape was often the best option. I think it began as an insult among black people themselves, like insulting a woman’s weave, but through black comedians and comedy shows it entered the wider culture. (Sometimes it’s also called “grape drink.”)

        • Or Orange soda/pop/drink. I get the reference, but I disagree that using it is racist anymore than fried chicken or watermelon are, in and of themselves, racist. When we start making lists of what people are or are not allowed to say based solely upon their skin color, we deserve whatever we get. This way lies lunacy.

        • I would suggest that if only poor black people purchased off brand varieties of sugary soda drinks there would not be a plethora of them on the shelves. What is unique about many of these varieties relative to their Coke and Pepsi product competitors is the sugar content. Grape soda sold under the brand FANTA or NEHI are typically priced higher that Coke and Pepsi products as those two are battling for sales supremacy.

          Based on the buyer behavior I see in grocery stores black shoppers routinely choose more expensive branded products over house brands. It is probable that price is not the determining factor in the choice of products but rather the level of sweetness preferred. This is evident among buyers of Pepsi versus Coke as Coke is a much dryer (less sweet) taste.

          With all that said, if it is an insult, and created in the black community to be leveled at the poor then it cannot be racist it is merely classist.

    • Uh, no.

      The absurdity of this is only worthy of ridicule — for watermelons, fried chicken and grape soda.

      When everything is racist, nothing is.

  3. From the urban dictionary, the best meaning of “grape soda”:

    A tasty soft drink that Blacks can’t get enough of. It’s often accompanied by a bag of barbequed potato chips. This combo can be eaten as breakfast lunch or dinner.
    “Yo man, get me a bag of barbequed chips, and don’t forget my grape soda.”

    I’m white but grape soda and barbequed potato chips are two of my favorite convenience store/gas station sinful indulgences. I’ve never tried them together. Might be a little too sweet for my taste.

  4. When I was a kid, I went through a phase where I loved Welch’s grape soda. I have no idea why. I don’t drink any soda anymore because I eschew extra calories, and hopefully you, nor anyone else, cares about the aforementioned facts.

    Having lived all 63.5 of my years in the South, I have never once heard of grape soda used in a racial context. So as far as I am concerned, this whole story is based on a bullshit lie some idiot somewhere made up and managed to convince some New Yorkers was actually a thing. If it isn’t a hoax, it should be.

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