Big Cattle’s Beef with Oprah: America’s reckoning with animal exploitation and black womanhood
The only mad cow in America is Oprah.
That popular phrase graced tee shirts and bumper stickers in and around Amarillo, Texas, circa 1998.
It was the year that the beef industry sued a black woman in open court for defying their power and authority.
In an unprecedented move, Winfrey temporarily picked up her entire talk show operation in Chicago and re-homed it in the Texas panhandle city for the duration of the entire five-week trial, which generated international attention.
At the center of the trial was an April 1996 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. The episode featured former rancher turned environmentalist, Howard Lyman, who said that while there had been no documented cases of mad cow disease in the United States, it was a distinct possibility.
Whatever was said about mad cow disease, the most terrifying moment for the industry came when Oprah said during the show that she had been "stopped cold from eating another burger."
The industry argued that Oprah initiated a panic that cost them more than $5 billion. However, the people who "panicked" were not consumers. They were stock brokers. Oprah didn't scare grocery shoppers. Ostensibly, she scared rich men.
The fall in cattle futures occurred on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, not the supermarket. In fact, Tim Brennan, a futures trader who testified against Oprah during the trial, admitted that he placed his "sell" order before he had even seen the show. He did it based solely on the fact that mad cow disease would be discussed period.
To be clear, there is zero evidence to suggest that consumer buying habits were influenced at all as a result of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Furthermore, the episode on mad cow disease aired at a time when drought, high feed prices, and oversupply crippled cattle ranchers. So any impact on beef prices cannot be separated from other mitigating factors.
"You think Oprah ought to pay $10 million because you thought what she said would stop housewives from buying hamburgers?" asked defense lawyer Charles Babcock.
Brennan answered, "This is true."
Massive coverage of mad cow disease also aired across the United States and abroad. So why was The Oprah Winfrey Show specifically singled out for retribution? No one can say for certain. But let us be clear.
At the behest of the beef industry, the U.S. judiciary literally put a black woman on trial for speaking truthfully and publicly about the possible consequences of consuming animal products, which interfered with the industry's ability to ruthlessly exploit animals for capitalist gain.
Oprah Winfrey stood in a maelstrom of anti-blackness, animal violence, and men who systemically silence women.
The only mad cow in America is Oprah.
Will Hueston, a USDA official who appeared on Oprah's mad cow segment, complained in his testimony during the trial of a "lynch mob mentality" because he had heard people in the studio audience whispering that "You can't trust the government."
Winfrey's attorney reminded Hueston that imagery of a "lynch mob" referred to the use of violence against black lives. Hueston burst into tears, apologized, and attempted to recover by framing himself as a civil rights worker who was persecuted as a child for having black friends.
A white person strategically employs white tears to absolve themselves of racist acts. We’ve seen this before.
A white person uses performative allyship as a shield against their exposed racism. We’ve seen this before.
A white person has black friends. We’ve seen this before!
The trial ended with the jury finding squarely in favor of the defendant and against the local cattlemen who accused her of devastating the beef market.
But in the end, it doesn't much matter that Winfrey won the case. The beef industry pioneered a technique that can be used repeatedly to quash debate about risks associated with controversial industry practices.
The erosion of democratic norms did not start under the administration of Donald Trump. The erosion of democratic norms, of a free press, of First Amendment rights, have been happening for decades.
And they’ve been happening at the expense of black women.
And the blood money of animal exploitation is directly complicit.
THE ONLY MAD COW IN AMERICA IS OPRAH.
For a deep dive into the history of this trial, animal rights activist Howard Lyman, and animal exploitation as part of white national identity, email me for my new talk “Big Cattle’s Beef with Oprah: America’s reckoning with animal exploitation and black womanhood.” And to support more work like this, consider supporting me on Patreon.