TWIN FALLS — District Judge Randy Stoker said the locker room attack of a black, mentally disabled Dietrich football player was not racially motivated despite evidence that white players and coaches called him “fried chicken, grape soda and Kool-Aid.”
Stoker made the comments Friday during a sentencing hearing for a defendant in the case who has been accused in a civil complaint of racially bullying the victim.
He appeared unaware of the racist tropes commonly used to stereotype African Americans.
“In my view, this is not a case about racial bias,” Stoker said of the charge against John R.K Howard, 19, of Keller, Tex.
Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Tri-State Conference of Idaho, Nevada and Utah, scoffed at Stoker’s comments that those specific foods are not racially charged.
“Why did they call him just those foods?” Williams said from a conference in Las Vegas. “They were calling him those names as demeaning. It had nothing to do with that he likes those things.”
The judge went on to talk about incidents involving the victim with obvious racial undertones or bias but showed little understanding of their meanings.
“Another thing that happened is (the victim) made some kind of football play, and he happened to be a fan of liking grape drinks,” Stoker said. “So guess what? The pseudonym or whatever got hung on him. The players and even the coaches called him ‘grape drink’ or ‘grape something.’ Well, I guess if you folks think that is a racial slur, under the circumstances … my perception of that is much different than yours. I don’t think it is. Nobody thinks it is.”
A racial slur was exactly what the name was, Williams said.
“To say it’s just because he liked it, that’s totally false.”
Grape soda has a history as an African-American stereotype dating back at least 50 years. In the 1960s, African-Americans consumed about 50 percent of the country’s grape soda despite making up just 11 percent of the population, according to the book “The 60s” by Edward J. Reilly. The drink was popular with African–Americans, then, but has since been used in popular culture and otherwise as derogatory to blacks.
And in a deposition last week in the civil case, the victim said statements that he liked grape soda weren’t true.
“Just because I’m black, that doesn’t mean I like grape soda and watermelon,” he testified at his deposition Feb. 17.
“Did you like grape soda?” an attorney for the school district asked.
“To tell you the truth, I was never — I don’t know,” the victim said. “I just — grape soda is just...”
“So you’re saying you don’t like grape soda?” the attorney asked again.
“No,” the victim answered.
Stoker went back to the issue later in Friday’s hearing while reading through statements from the pre-sentence report.
“Coaches admitted that (the victim) was called ‘fried chicken, grape soda and Kool-Aid,’” Stoker read. “But only because he said he liked those things. Coaches said they bought (the victim) grape soda one time for making a big play on the football field, because it was one of his favorite things, and that moniker … hung on him.”
Fried chicken, Kool-Aid and watermelon — another name that players and coaches called the victim — are even more ubiquitous as anti-black slurs.
Apparently, Stoker was unaware.
“I don’t think (those are) racial slurs,” Stoker said. “If it is, I guess I’m not very educated.”
“Well, he’s not very educated, then,” she said.
Watermelon as a slur dates back to the time of slavery, when enslaved Africans brought the fruit to the U.S. and were typically the ones who would consume it. The fruit has since become a stereotype, often derogatory.
Fried chicken as a slur dates back to at least the period of southern segregation, and especially to the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation,” originally titled “The Clansman,” when a black character rudely consumes fried chicken during a legislative session.
As for Williams and the NAACP, she was “appalled” and “outraged” by the sentence and said she would be just as appalled and outraged if it was three black students who attacked one white student. She doubted, though, if the case would have been handled the same if the races were reversed.
“The NAACP is not satisfied at all … we will continue to pursue the request in which we asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office to review this case,” Williams said.
Outgoing U.S. Attorney for Idaho Wendy Olson, whose last day in office was Friday, said her office “still has an open matter” regarding the Dietrich case but was waiting until the attorney general’s criminal cases concluded to make a determination of whether to file federal hate-crime charges.