In December of 2016, three weeks after President Donald Trump's inauguration, white supremacists hijacked Shia LaBeouf's livestream. Four or five men gathered in front of the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City, shirtless, pale, and bearded. Flexing into the camera, each held a plastic gallon of milk, which they poured into their mouths with the furor of a frat brother at a keg stand—at one point even lifting a milk-chugging, fist-pumping member onto their shoulders.
"Hey you non-whites," one man yelled into the camera, the excess milk dripping down his chin. "I can do this, and you can't."
This, of course, is not true. Research shows the genetic mutation to process lactose is not unique to white people. Moreover, it's just that: a mutation—not an ideal, or even the norm. The true outliers are not those with lactose intolerance, but lactase persistence, as it's known to researchers. And yet, experts have argued that race has long played a role in milk's adoption in America—a history that's too easily overlooked now that polarizing groups have weighed in.
This week, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals roused the ire of conservative and mainstream media by warning the public off milk, which it called "the perfect drink for white supremacists." Citing the faulty science and milk memes often lauded by white supremacists like Richard Spencer, PETA member Zachary Toliver wrote, "Before you pour a glass of the 'white stuff,' please remember that it isn't the 'right stuff.'"
In ceding the symbol to its foes, PETA was perpetuating common misconceptions about lactose intolerance. Recent breakthroughs in genetics challenge the idea that humans have long held the ability to process lactose in fresh milk. These studies suggest the mutation only took hold among Northern European dairy farmers some 3,000 years ago, most likely out of dire need, since the climate wasn't conducive to growing much else. However, cattle breeders in East Africa also developed this ability—a fact often ignored by white supremacists. As the New York Times reported last week, geneticists who study this mutation are now worried that their research is being misinterpreted to support racist claims.
It is true that those Northern Europeans' descendants now overwhelmingly retain the ability to consume milk, and many others do not, including a majority of their Southern peers. While up to 90 percent of Asian Americans and 79 percent of African Americans lack the enzyme to process lactose, it is by no means a mark of inferiority. As historians have extensively shown, white culture is not the world's only dairy culture, nor has it always embraced milk. India, for one, currently produces and consumes more milk than any other country, while Americans increasingly don't meet their federally recommended three cups a day.
But white supremacists' support for milk is grounded in symbolism as much as in (pseudo-)science. On this front, the argument has historical precedent. When milk first gained prominence in America, early dairy advocates extolled its virtues to the "Aryan" population, writes historian Melanie Dupuis. As President Herbert Hoover, giving a speech in 1923, told the World's Dairy Congress, "Upon this industry, more than any other of the food industries, depends not alone the problem of public health, but there depends upon it the very growth and virility of the white races."
Milk's "whiteness" is just one aspect of this mythology. Since its debut on this continent, the drink has been hailed by nutritionists as a "perfect food"—the sliced bread of the federal dietary guidelines. After milk was first fortified with Vitamin D in the 1930s, the federal government's inaugural public-health nutrition campaign promoted it as a miracle cure, a rite of passage, and, later, a means to support the troops in World Wars I and II, as outlined in anthropologist Andrea Wiley's book Re-Imagining Milk. (Drink your milk and your vitamins: American efficiency in action.)
In fact, the mechanisms supporting milk have not always been so wholesome. Many of the same organizations oversee the production and sale of dairy today as in 1915, when the country's most powerful dairy lobbying group, the National Dairy Council, first partnered with the United States Department of Agriculture.
Andrea Freeman, a law professor at the University of Hawaii who studies dairy's connection to racial health disparities, argues that this relationship enables what she calls "food oppression": federal policies that disproportionately harm low-income people and people of color. In the case of milk, these include employing former representatives of dairy corporations to lead USDA marketing efforts, passing legislation that embeds milk in federal food assistance programs and school lunches, and buying up agricultural surplus to keep dairy prices steady under the farm bill. The National School Lunch Act of 1946, for example, requires schools to offer fluid milk in order to receive federal reimbursement as "a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation's children."
The government also unloads its milk surplus through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, and partnerships with fast food companies. Low-income black and brown people, who rely more on these programs, already face existing health disparities. By targeting them, USDA policies put them at increased risk for health problems like cancer and heart disease, Freeman says.
So when news emerged about white supremacy's latest symbol, Freeman was not surprised. "If you said, 'you like milk because you like your white privilege,' they would laugh in your face," she says. "But it's nothing new. It's 100 years old." Online, however, this symbolism is still a recent development: After the stunt at the art museum, the milk memes spread to chat rooms and Twitter, where Richard Spencer's bio once boasted that he was "very tolerant ... lactose-tolerant."
In these displays, Freeman sees a visible expression of institutionalized racism. "With milk, we have the USDA policy disproportionately affecting students of color, public school students, poor students, and that underlies and condones the white supremacist co-option of milk as a symbol of whiteness," she says. "So it's operating on all levels. Some of them are blatant and look ridiculous, but all they're doing is reflecting the institutionalized reality."
As the research on poverty and nutrition shows, many people have little control over their food consumption, due to a host of societal factors. Between the white supremacists championing milk and the activists forgoing it, the debate around milk remains, for some, a false choice.