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The complicated history of McDonald’s and Black America

Marcia Chatelain Jul 6, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
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Black Lives Matter protesters march past a Philadelphia McDonald's restaurant. ela/Getty Images
Shelf Life

The complicated history of McDonald’s and Black America

Marcia Chatelain Jul 6, 2020
Black Lives Matter protesters march past a Philadelphia McDonald's restaurant. ela/Getty Images
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McDonald’s has a complex history with Black communities going back to the civil rights era. While franchisees were building opportunity through the fast-food business model, critics questioned equity and fairness at the company. The following is an excerpt from “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America” by Marcia Chatelain. Click the audio player above to hear Chatelain’s interview with “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal.

“Hands up . . .”

“Don’t shoot!”

Across the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, protesters and mourners shouted the call-and-response dirge in memory of Michael Brown Jr. For weeks, traditional news outlets and amateur digital storytellers broadcast updates on the uprising that disrupted life in the town of 21,000. Ferguson’s landmarks became familiar scenes for the millions who followed the crisis on their televisions and smartphones. But, of all the places that represented Ferguson in the public eye that summer, the McDonald’s restaurant at 9131 West Florissant best symbolized the interplay between racial justice and the marketplace in America, past and present.

The Florissant Avenue McDonald’s was both an escape from the uprising and one of its targets. On some days, the McDonald’s was a beacon. Reporters found live electrical outlets to charge their computers and Wi-Fi to send emails to their editors. Demonstrators took breaks from marching and ordered cold drinks as the daytime temperature hovered around 80 degrees. Police officers, overheated by their uniforms of domestic war, found air-conditioned relief as they awaited shift changes. At the counter, cashiers managed their regular duties while also attending to an increase in requests for bottles of milk, used to relieve the sting from the chemicals launched into the late summer sky.

Eventually, calm was restored in Ferguson, and in the recap of what happened in the St. Louis exurb, the Florissant McDonald’s was portrayed as a bright spot and an anchor for the community.

Courtesy Liveright

The Ferguson moment was not the first time that McDonald’s played a major role in a racial crisis. In fact, the Florissant Avenue McDonald’s — as a franchise location owned and operated by an African American businessman — is the descendant of a somewhat bizarre but incredibly powerful marriage between a fast-food behemoth and the fight for civil rights.

The roots of the contemporary conversation about race and fast food begins with the founding of McDonald’s in the 1940s. McDonald’s was able to expand quickly because of the franchising model, which draws upon a deeply American premise: an individual with no formal training or education can become a business owner — maybe even a millionaire — with only an owner’s manual and sheer will.

Franchisees must be prepared to assume the liabilities and risks of business ownership that the corporate heads never have to consider. They have to file a police report after a robbery during the lunchtime rush. They have to determine when to close if a hurricane is coming and then clean up after it hits. They need to know how to respond to upticks in the cost of flour, which leads to hamburger buns cutting deeper into the bottom line.

If the franchisee is a person of color, they are more likely to do business in a community with higher insurance costs or receive less attention from the parent company — despite earning the most profits in their chain’s system.

After segregation was legally dissolved by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African Americans were still left with a low ceiling hovering over their social and economic mobility. Certain factions of the black freedom movement turned their attention to black capitalism, in an attempt to convert their social gains into economic ones. They looked to black business ownership as a viable way forward. Politicians like Richard Nixon were only too happy to appear to be supporting African Americans by backing initiatives encouraging small business ownership, which provided a pathway for some black fast-food franchise owners to get their start.

In 1968, Herman Petty, the first African American to franchise a McDonald’s restaurant, acquired the keys to a restaurant in one of the many Chicago neighborhoods shaken by the uprising that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. Petty relied on a mix of franchise training and street smarts to turn around the location, and he went on to not only own additional restaurants, but also helped to establish the National Black McDonald’s Operators Association (NBMOA) in 1972. It soon became the black voice within the McDonald’s corporation.

As was the case in Petty’s early years, the overwhelming majority of black franchisees operate businesses in majority black locations, and as fast food became the predominant retail food option in many communities, NBMOA members outperformed their white counterparts. The rapid success of these locations sparked McDonald’s and their competitors to concentrate on black diners, recruit more black franchisees, and commit to developing strategies to cultivate this consumer base.

Petty and other NBMOA founders reasoned that their restaurants’ popularity was an outgrowth of not only the deliciousness of McDonald’s burgers, but also the sweet satisfaction African Americans found in supporting a black business. But some black consumers wanted their communities to share more in the Golden Arches’ profits. For instance, Operation Black Unity (OBU) formed in Cleveland with the explicit purpose of challenging the presence of white franchisees in black communities and compelling the city’s first black mayor, Carl Stokes, into action on the issue. Black franchise ownership could only do so much for a community that experienced overwhelming rates of poverty and unemployment. But the OBU protest forced McDonald’s broadly, and black franchisees specifically, to develop practices and protocols for addressing black consumers who were critical of entities that profited so much from people with so little.

By the 1980s, most fast-food franchises had settled into the landscape of black and, increasingly, Latino neighborhoods. McDonald’s continued to lead the way in developing franchisees of color and establishing trust among black eaters, but these gains were still subject to questions about equity and fairness, both outside and inside the corporation. A legal conflict between Charles Griffis, a black McDonald’s franchisee in Los Angeles, and McDonald’s headquarters included accusations that McDonald’s only assigned black franchisees to unstable neighborhoods that generated high profits but required high overhead costs.

After the collapse of the Nixon administration and a retrenchment in funding for black businesses when Ronald Reagan assumed the Oval Office, the language of black capitalism lost cachet. But the idea that business could “fix” black America did not perish in the 1980s. The NAACP and its counterparts breathed new life into black capitalism under the guise of Fair Share programs, which settled boycotts and protests with agreements to invest in black America by way of businesses. The agreements required fast-food corporations to expand access to franchising contracts, therefore encouraging the introduction of more fast-food outlets into already crowded black communities.

A few years after the Los Angeles NAACP toasted its Fair Share deals with McDonald’s and other fast food chains, McDonald’s once again found itself involved in the narrative of racial violence after a major news event: the 1992 Los Angeles uprising over the death of Rodney King.

This time was a bit different in that a handful of franchisees of color testified to the power of their business’s presence in the community, and they claimed little to no damage during an event that destroyed a billion dollars in property. Their anecdotes helped fuel another round of experimentation with using fast food as a tool of racial justice, and this iteration of federal support was christened black empowerment.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s and its cohort continue to maintain a complicated relationship with its most loyal customers. Today, fast-food restaurants are hyperconcentrated in the places that are the poorest and most racially segregated. Due to its saturation in black America, fast food is often identified as the culprit among the research on high rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension among blacks. Researchers have warned that a black child born in the year 2000 has a 53% chance of developing Type 2 diabetes; the likelihood of a white child developing the potentially fatal disease is less than 30%. In 2015, nearly 75% of African American adults and 33% of black adolescents were considered overweight or obese.

This story of McDonald’s in black America is about how capitalism can unify cohorts to serve its interests, even as it disassembles communities. By locating the origins of the urban food crisis to the advent of the fast-food franchise, we can become more aware of choices — who has them and who creates them. Ultimately, history encourages us to be more compassionate toward individuals navigating few choices, and history cautions us to be far more critical of the institutions and structures that have the power to take choices away.

For too long, research on race and fast food has placed the onus solely on black palates and parents for the dismal state of black health. Without an understanding of how we got here, the food justice movement will never move beyond the idea of individual choice and continue to ignore structural disequilibrium. Promoting healthy lifestyles can improve lives. But understanding how shifts in the priorities of the mid-century civil rights struggle, changes in federal policy on business and urban development, and the boom years of fast food converged in the lives of black America is equally critical.

Adapted from “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America” by Marcia Chatelain. Copyright © by 2020 Marcia Chatelain. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Correction (July 6, 2020): A previous version of this story misstated the book’s subtitle. The full title is “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America.”

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