When No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

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	An exterior view of Chink's Steaks at 6030 Torresdale Ave. in Philadelphia.<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />

In Philadelphia, restaurateur Joe Groh experienced a 10 percent drop in business in June and another 15 percent drop in July when he changed the name of his restaurant to Joe’s Steakhouse + Soda Shop. Joe was also attacked on social media. His restaurant has been vandalized. Some old time customers have furiously vowed never to return.

Why did the name change piss people off so badly? Because it made a statement about racism. Used to be that Joe’s Steakhouse + Soda Shop was called Chink’s Steaks.

“Chink” was the nickname of the founder and former owner, Sam Sherman, given to him because of the almond shape of his eyes. According to the Daily News, Joe decided that it was time to change the name at the end of March because “I am Joe. It’s 2013. It was time to do it.”

Joe Groh has worked at the steakhouse for 35 years. It’s the only place he’s ever worked. He provides 14 jobs to residents of the neighborhood and holds the former owner, Mr. Sherman, in high regard. He just wanted to change the name of a business he owns because he’s Joe, and he wants the name to be a reflection of him, his values, and the legacy he wants to pass on to his son who has already joined him in the business.

Apparently, being someone who would rather not retain the name of a business you bought because it contains a word you find offensive makes you too politically correct to thousands of people. Those thousands, 10,000 to be exact, were so attached to the ability to make other people feel miserable, and demeaned, even scared, by retaining a business name that contained a racial slur that they’ve signed a petition of protest against Joe demanding that he change the name back. I remind you, this is Joe’s own business, not some publicly traded corporation. This would be like buying a house that has a racial slur painted on it and painting over it only to find that your neighbors are circulating a petition to force you to put the slur back up again.

How did we become this country? Or, is this is how we’ve always been? I’m double dipping and going with both options. We are becoming something, and that something goes against the grain of what we are and have been. Joe’s decision to rename his business is a symbol of that change.

Remember, he said he changed it because “I’m Joe. It’s 2013.” Joe dumped the name “Chinks” to acknowledge that the cultural tide is turning against white racism. Worse, at least to his opponents, his acknowledgment is changing the cultural landscape of Philadelphia. So by changing the name of his restaurant, Joe is contributing to that turning tide. That’s why folks are pissed at him. The new name is provoking the anger rooted in the fear that many whites in Philadelphia and around the country are feeling over the sense that they are losing control of American culture.



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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

9 replies on “When No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”

With this post you have convinced me of the wide extent of racism still motivating a large segment of our society. One would not be surprized if a few slack-jawed, mouth breathing idiots had this kind of reaction to the name change but 10,000?? OMG! How extremely depressing. All I can say is when I am next in Philly, which is fairly often, Joe’s Steaks is going to be my lunch place

Thanks! If you check out that Yelp link, Joe’s makes one helluva cheese steak sandwich.

Bravo to Joe the steakhouse owner for standing up and saying, “It’s 2013. Time to change.” It is 2013 and it’s time to stand up and say, “Enough is enough” to the racism.

I think this does overlook one fundamental aspect of American (and to a degree human) nature. Not racism, but ‘brand loyalty’. There’s no argument that the name was a racial slur, but I would argue that most people angry at the change aren’t angry at the removal of the racial slur, but the perceived change in the “brand” and therefore a perceived difference in the product. And any name change can trigger this, not just name changes to remove offensive terms.

Remember when Jack in the Box (if you have it in your area) tried changing their name to Monterey Jack? It didn’t stick very long, because even though the restaurant was *exactly the same*, the food they served was the same, the people serving you the food were the same, but the name change prompted a change in the perception of the restaurant, and the public didn’t like the change in that perception.

There’s a great TedTalk by Sheena Iyengar, not specifically on this subject but on the way we perceive choice. One of the experiments she ran was to take two shades of pink nail polish, remove the names, and ask women if they could tell the colors apart. Most women accused her of putting the same polish in both bottles. This was after she had been assured by other women in the nail salon that the colors were clearly different between.

As she indicates, the name on the bottle influenced how the women perceived the colors inside, rather than (as the unlabeled study showed) the colors being fundamentally different.

When a restaurant such as the one in this story has been around the neighborhood for as long as this one has, it becomes not just a business, but *part* of the neighborhood. People do take it very personally. When someone changes this, even in such a superficial way as ‘name’, that does cause an angry backlash. Not because people want to hold onto their racism (that’s an entirely different, though real, human mindset) but because of the way the name changes our perception of a place.

As Sheena says, a rose by any other name does not smell the same to us. Names affect how we interact with things around us. And change, no any level, has never been easy for human nature to navigate.

I’m not arguing against the name change, only pointing out there really is something much deeper going on that simple racism. Understanding that might go a long way in helping to understand and counter angry reactions such as this. Ask the locals (previously) if they think “Chinks” needs a name change, they’ll probably get angry at you for even suggesting it (as was evidently played out in practice.) But if you word the question “Should racial slurs be acceptable as business names?” most people will say no, and probably think you’re a bit stupid for asking the question. It’s the way the subject is approached that makes a huge difference, and the approach can either trigger certain reactions in people, or help to navigate and avoid the primal fear that change conjures up.

Obviously there is no 100%, but I think sometimes it just takes the right way of wording things to get people to see what is right instead of just see what they ‘feel’.

Thanks. Very interesting comments. I do believe you’re right that brand loyalty, not to mention loyalty to the man after whom the restaurant was named, looms large here, but it doesn’t explain the 10,000 people who signed petitions or the drop off in regulars, or the vandalism, or the comment thread on yelp, for that matter. If you go deep enough, it gets ugly. But, that doesn’t negate your point, which is a good one, no doubt.

Fear is a funny thing. Fear of change/the unknown seems an almost universal condition (human or otherwise!). And fear comes out in a variety of sideways reactions, from irrational anger, to paralysis. And yes, that anger can very often take the form of racism (or at least, be expressed in racist terms), but I think that is a symptom of expression rather than the cause.

When people encounter any change, especially a change in something that has gone unchanged for a length of time, it seems to illicit irrationally strong negative reactions.

People send death threats to website developers for changing the colors on chat forums, threaten to leave and never come back, and other completely disproportionate threats to what is… a very superficial change.

This seems like the kind of thing happening here. The disproportionate reaction to the name change is the feeling that we have control over our environment, or at the very least a right to expect that environment to remain steady.

In a world where change is increasingly a daily occurrence, those things that have remained steady the longest would seem to therefore illicit the strongest objection to change of any sort.

As I said, I’m not ignoring the idea that racism is very much still part of the US, or that objection to this name change may have been expressed in extremely racist terms, but it just seems that the underlying anger here isn’t racial, it’s much more primal than that.

Creative Metaphor – why do we always some apologist explaining away the racism that is so obvious and in your face? Did you even bother to read any other articles related to this story? Did you see the quotes from the name-change “objectors?” How do you come to the conclusion that this objection is not about racism? Are you an expert in “underlying anger”?

It’s so common to hear statements like “Yes, there is racism in America, but NOT in THIS particular case. No no no. It’s just all in you head.” Please, open up the restaurant’s website and look at the articles listed on the Press page. You will see the racism in black and white. Actual quotes from people that don’t want the name changed. They state their cases most succinctly. The same bullshit racism that allowed an idiot to name his place of business “Chinks” is also in effect right now in 2013. It was wrong for the name to exist in the first place and it’s wrong for people to vandalize the show now in order to force the owner to keep the name.

Stop explaining away hate with your illogical reasoning. Stop speaking for others, especially the dreg of our society that likes to push their hate. Stop making excuses for the real issue behind this story. Stop thinking that you are somehow helping the situation. People like you ARE the reason racism exists in such strength in our country – you are even more dangerous than the overt racists because you excuse their behavior and give them a pass.

Spot on. Seriously every damn time the apologists come out. “I’m not saying there’s not some (insert whatever -ism is being discussed) going on here, but allow me to spend a gratuitous amount of time trying to provide alternative explanations for what is going on here.”

Because we really have FAR too many conversations about racism going on today in the world! (sarcasm off)

No, people like me are not the reason racism exists in this country. People like me try to understand why racism still exists in this country and address the why, not just the what.

Like parenting. Sure, you can say the problem is your kid is disrespectful and has anger issues, but that isn’t WHY your kid is disrespectful and has anger issues, that’s just how the problems are being expressed. Address WHY it happens, and you’ll address the result.

I’m trying to delve into WHY people still behave this way, and racism is not a why, it’s a what or a how. It’s how people act/what people do, but not why they act that way. I want to understand WHY people act that way, and in doing so hope to address the root causes that are expressed as racism.

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