The runaway hit “Rich Men North of Richmond” is remarkable for any number of reasons—not least its debut at the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 charts—but in between gripes over high taxes and low pay, singer-songwriter Oliver Anthony wades into the national conversation over obesity:
Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothing to eat
And the obese milking welfare
God, if you’re 5 foot 3 and you’re 300 pounds
Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds
While we recognize the pain and frustration that Anthony channels, these lyrics invoke racist tropes of welfare queens and ultimately stigmatize people with obesity. “Rich Men North of Richmond” is pitched as a blue-collar anthem, but we believe it simultaneously reveals how weight bias and racism are fundamentally intertwined.
Christopher Anthony Lunsford, who goes by the stage name Oliver Anthony, gives a surprise performance with his guitarist Joey Davis at the Rock the Block street festival on Aug. 26, in Farmville, Virginia.
Samuel Corum/Getty Images
Indeed, the idea of “the obese milking welfare” harkens back to Reagan-era fears of Black hustlers abusing government benefits. In stump speeches for his 1976 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan would rail against the broken welfare state, with the story of Chicago resident Linda Taylor as exhibit one—a fur-coat-wearing, Cadillac-driving woman on food stamps. While Reagan never named or explicitly racialized Taylor, his white audience got the message, and the phrase “welfare queen” became a stand-in for all poor and Black people—laziness at the expense of honest, hard-working Americans. Now, we’re hearing this dog whistle deployed against people with obesity as well.
It’s true that obesity rates are higher among Hispanic and Black adults at 46 to 50 percent versus the national average of 42 percent, but these disparities reflect systemic racism, not gluttony and a lack of self-discipline, as Anthony suggests. For instance, five categories of processed foods make up 75 percent of Spanish-language and Black-targeted TV ad spending, and low-income neighborhoods are essentially food swamps, filled with corner stores and fast food restaurants.
Beyond the greater accessibility, ultra-processed foods like “fudge rounds” are often cheaper than fruits and vegetables due to government subsidies. And that’s not to mention the significantly greater chronic stress, or allostatic load, experienced by Hispanic and Black youth, causing wear and tear to their bodies and increasing their susceptibility to obesity.
The list goes on, from lower sleep duration to a lack of safe recreational spaces. But despite all these structural drivers, obesity continues to be portrayed as a personal failure and lifestyle choice. In fact, in a 2013 survey, 80 percent of Americans believed that individuals were primarily to blame for their obesity, mirroring the 50 percent of white Americans who thought housing, income, and employment disparities would disappear if Blacks had “the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty.” Dangerous assumptions of personal responsibility span both racism and weight bias.
Critically, these assumptions are not limited to Billboard-topping singles, legacy newspapers, and other cultural touchstones. They are also reflected in US law, with Medicare banned from paying for anti-obesity medications since 2003. Coverage could start almost immediately if Congress passed the bipartisan Treat and Reduce Obesity Act, but for the past decade, the bill has languished on the House and Senate floors, at least partially because of the welfare dog whistle. Why should the government cover medical treatment for those people? Rather than a chronic disease linked to 224 health complications, costing the U.S. economy $1.72 trillion, obesity has become synonymous with “milking welfare” and “bags of fudge rounds.” By perpetuating these stigmatizing narratives, we hinder progress on meaningful solutions.
In the United States, the two most common forms of bias are racism, followed closely by weight bias, but as “Rich Men North of Richmond” reveals, they are firmly intertwined, each feeding and building off the other. While our society has gradually recognized that racism must be addressed as a systemic issue, obesity is still seen as an individual problem. Yes, diet and exercise can help some people lose weight. However, the complexity of this disease—and the deck being stacked against minority communities—emphasizes the need for structural change and a more compassionate discourse. Obesity is a public health crisis, not a moral one.
Simar Bajaj is a student at Harvard University, as well as a research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and Stanford University School of Medicine. He is an award-winning writer and contributor to The Atlantic, TIME Magazine, Washington Post, Guardian, and NPR. Follow him on Twitter @SimarSBajaj.
Fatima Cody Stanford, MD, MPH, MPA, MBA, is an Associate Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics who practices and teaches at Massachusetts General Hospital / Harvard Medical School as one of the first fellowship-trained obesity medicine physicians worldwide. She is a health communicator, educator, and policy maker who seeks to improve the lives of patients with obesity. Follow her on Twitter @askdrfatima.
The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.
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