McDonald's, Food Justice, and the Problem with Black Capitalism | Civil Eats

McDonald’s, Food Justice, and the Problem with Black Capitalism

Marcia Chatelain, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book ‘Franchise,’ talks about how fast food is a false solution in Black communities.

dr. marcia chatelain and the cover of her pulitzer-prize-winning book franchise, about mcdonald's and black capitalism

In 2020, when the murder of George Floyd sparked a racial reckoning that overtook the headlines, McDonald’s joined nearly every other corporation as they pledged their allegiance to the Black Lives Matter movement. A year earlier, the fast food restaurant, known for its constant presence in Black neighborhoods, had launched its “Black and Positively Golden” campaign. But it moved away from the 2019 campaign’s overly positive take on Black excellency and took on a more subdued tone, naming victims of police brutality alongside the somber statement: “They were one of us.”

McDonald’s had been there before. From aligning itself with the collective Black grief after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, to championing Black franchise owners as the stalwarts of community economic progress, the fast food giant sells whatever the Black community needs at the moment alongside its burgers and fries.

“The fundamental problem with Black capitalism is that it suggests that there can be a strategy for equal access and equal opportunity within the current structure.”

Dr. Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University, has spent years tracking McDonald’s presence in the Black community. In her 2021 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, Chatelain writes about civil rights history, Black capitalism, and the exploitative nature of franchising. She takes a subversive approach to documenting the relationship between McDonald’s and Black institutions, while upending the narrative of American exceptionalism and persistence portrayed in films like The Founder.

Using both her lens as a historian, and her upbringing in Chicago, where she witnessed the mainstreaming of Black culture and a burgeoning Black wealth class that included many franchise owners, Chatelain describes the way McDonald’s has rooted itself in Black American life, with sometimes fatal consequences. Dozens of studies have linked fast food, highly processed foods, and sugary drinks to asthmadiet-related illnesses, and mental health challenges.

Chatelain also uses the book to firmly call in our decision-makers—many of whom consistently take the wrong approach to solving our most intransigent food access issues. She also offers empathetic acknowledgement to those on the receiving end of these harmful patterns, and applauds community members and advocates for their bravery and consistency in the messaging and strategy. Here’s hoping we listen this time.

Civil Eats spoke with Chatelain in early January about the book, Black capitalism, and how civil rights leaders and institutions became implicated in what is now acknowledged as a public health crisis in Black communities.

Your book Franchise is a game-changer in the way we view and discuss Black communities and fast food. Was there a single event or inspiration that compelled you to write on this topic?

It comes from growing up Black in a time and place where two things were emerging. One [was the] different representational strategies and popular culture and media around Black culture, and the avenues of co-option [of Black culture]. So, the rise of hip hop, the rise of what would become the reality TV boom, and in many ways, the rap aesthetic being used in television commercials—that kind of thing.

In Chicago, so much of Black cultural life included Black franchise [owners], because they represented a generation of Black people who were making it inside of corporate America, people who are of a certain business and ownership class.

It’s this interesting thing, that when you grow up in a very specific time, the things that you notice follow you, and for me, it was Black McDonald’s franchise owners being everywhere.

Was there one thing related to the co-option of Black culture that you saw that caused you to ask: “Why isn’t everybody else seeing this? What is this?”

(After) growing up in this age of a certain type of commercialized idea of Black excellence, I was also becoming a scholar when people were cluing into food justice issues. I was in graduate school when people were talking about co-ops and urban farming and all of these things that were really great ideas—but the analysis of race was just not there. And it was intersecting with the ways that diet culture was also weighing in on issues of health and food access.

In the book you discuss how Black capitalism was one of the driving forces behind civil rights movement support (from organizations like the NAACP and Operation PUSH) for more Black-owned franchises in Black communities. What are the features of Black capitalism as it shows up in the food space?

“There has never been a time where Black people have had the food justice you imagine, and romanticizing Black farmers and Black small business does not get us there.”

The fundamental problem with Black capitalism is that it suggests that there can be a strategy for equal access and equal opportunity within the current structure. So, people hustle, right? If they’re smart, if they strategize, have a celebrity partnership, go to the Roc Nation Brunch, if they just learn these things, then bam!—all of it happens.

But a conversation about how deeply undercapitalized Black neighborhoods and Black organizations are, even the ones that are doing well, puts this into a different place. Because there are two issues that we have to be really careful about.

I was just having a conversation with someone from the public health arena who was saying something like, “Black people didn’t have obesity until fast food.” I said, “But Black people having access to a very nutritious diet has never been.” I see people from all backgrounds [talk about] a Golden Age of Black food, and I’m very resistant to that idea, because Black people struggled to get access to quality foods in the sharecropping South, right? People were harvesting food, but they were eating beans 300 days out of the year. That isn’t a nutrition-rich diet. They may have had lower body weights because they weren’t eating very much. But that is not to say there was this Golden Age where there was justice. In the north, Black people were organizing in response to poor quality meat and vegetables in grocery stores in the ’30s and ’40s. That was a large part of the lead up to the civil rights movement.

There has never been a time where Black people have had the food justice you imagine, and romanticizing Black farmers and Black small business does not get us there. The danger in that is it suggests that there was ever a mechanism for [Black] people to get the things that they need. Black capitalism suggests things are possible that are just not. And I understand why it does that: It’s seductive, and it gives you something to believe in—the idea that local communities can form food co-ops and feed [themselves]. But in order for them to be sustainable, and to be able to outlast all the disruptions in the food market and community shifts . . .  that is contingent upon the community taking care of itself.

When we talk about race and food justice, we’re often talking about the “consuming body” and not enough about the “working body.” If we’re going to be serious within the context of Black communities and Black food justice workers, we have to think about agricultural workers. We have to think about the scores of Brown workers [working on farms]. If we are going to achieve food access, [we have to consider] who’s harvesting and processing this food, and where do we stand with them? Because the other thing about the rise of fast food is it messed up the supply chain.

How do you see ideas about Black capitalism playing within the food justice arena? How do current civil rights organizations support this framework?

Black civil rights organizations have always been in a tough position. They have always struggled with elements of co-optation and political strategizing. Whether it is anti-communism that swept through those organizations in the ’40s and ’50s or aligning with corporations in the ’70s and ’80s, this has long been a dilemma. And sometimes it’s a strategy, like, how do you cooperate in order to get your needs met? I try to be sensitive about that, because I know that actually trying to initiate change is hard. One of the themes in the book is the constrained choices that Black America has to make about providing jobs, about providing for its most basic needs.

But I do think there are missed opportunities. In aligning with a strategy of trying to do business development as civil rights organizations, they may have lost the ability to advocate for workers or put pressure on the federal government around things like guaranteed basic income and welfare rights. The dilemma is how do we create viable pathways to opportunity? How do we distance ourselves from the idea of Black helplessness or Black dependency by pivoting towards business and not supporting things like a huge social safety net?

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Choices are made that have consequences, but there’s always an opportunity to use that history to say, “Maybe we need to go in a different direction, because [Black capitalism] has not paid off in the ways that we hoped it would.” It hasn’t created sustainable and lasting change. A lot of us really struggle with correcting our past errors. And for some of these storied organizations, the distance they traveled from anti-lynching to education, to housing, to starting your own business, it’s noticeable.

What is good is that, increasingly, as people think about food justice differently, there are voices that are pushing back and trying to think holistically. It’s not just about Black economic opportunity, it’s about creating systems where people can thrive regardless of their position within it.

Our hero mythology gets applied in various ways throughout the food justice movement. And I saw it applied in the way that certain Black franchise owners would be celebrated for “saving the hood”—and then targeted if they didn’t want to go along with the program anymore. What are your thoughts about that?

“It is incredibly dangerous when one person has the ability to broker so much in terms of power and resources within a community.”

It isn’t just the problem of Black capitalism that we look for saviors. Within the context of organized religion and civil rights, there’s always this desire to have [heroes who] outsmart and outwit the forces of racism, of violence, and of capitalism.

However, I do think that it is incredibly dangerous when one person has the ability to broker so much in terms of power and resources within a community. And I think the brokerage politics that created the conditions I’m talking about in my book are part of the struggle to understand Black politics—who gets to speak, negotiate, and determine what success looks like.

Throughout the book, McDonald’s is saying, “Well, this handful of Black people told us what it is,” and communities are saying, “No, we’re going to tell you what it is.” I wanted to capture these moments where the idea that this [way of engaging the community] was inevitable is challenged. In some Black communities, people had questions, they were skeptical, and corporations actually did receive resistance.

There seems to be a particular pattern of Disaster Capitalism that fast food restaurants have capitalized on, particularly when there is racial unrest. You have a riot, then they—politicians, community leaders, government agencies—will say, “We’ve got to do something for these people.” And community members say all the things that they want—better schools, healthy food access, economic opportunity—beyond small business development, and the leaders are like, “Right, we’ll go with the business.”

It’s so wild to me. If you didn’t know better, you would say, “Well, I guess the people are inarticulate about what their needs are and someone else had to fill in the blank.” No, people are very clear [on what they need]. They have made it clear for over a century.

They say, “This [inequality] is what’s happening,” and the newspapers write about what’s happening, and the commissions [like the Kerner Commission] will tell you what’s happening. But what’s tangible and what’s immediate and what’s easy becomes the brand-new store, the grand opening. And I understand why it’s so seductive. I understand why all of this works.

Whether you’re the person purchasing a Happy Meal, or the person who thinks that your franchise is going to uplift your community, fast food sometimes seems like a practical, clear choice. I think about these men who are approached with this idea: “You can have a McDonald’s, a publicly traded company.” This is beyond anyone’s framework of what’s possible. And I also understand why you want a burger and fries. It’s delicious, right? This is the way that we come at these issues, as if they are outside of the realm of possibility of understanding. This is the first step in not being able to combat these forces.

When thinking through the investment communities receive or don’t receive for healthy food access, how do you see the particular ways the government has subsidized fast food franchises as a detractor to those investments?

When you buy a hamburger, McDonald’s has paid for the real estate, but [governments and taxpayers have made it possible]. Because if you think about the access to water, the power grid, asphalt streets, and highways that you need to go to the McDonald’s, the job training program that some of its workers may have been eligible for through public assistance benefits, the corn subsidies for the high fructose corn syrup that makes Coca Cola so refreshing, sweet, and delicious—all of this stuff, we paid for it.

This idea that these businesses are operating separate from us, that we can’t hold them accountable, that we can only ask for their benevolence. It also merges all of the public costs that we bear, whether it’s the fact that the worker is going to the emergency room because they don’t have proper health care, or the fact that someone’s getting COVID because someone else had to come to work sick. We’re all picking up the bill.

And corporate social responsibility obscures those relationships. Then [it looks like] businesses are doing the right thing. And it’s actually, “You’re paying me back for the money I fronted you.” Those are the types of dynamics that can make us really confused.

In your book, you write about franchisee drama—including a murder, fraud, and blackmail—and the way some celebrated civil rights leaders promoted fast food restaurants in Black communities. What was the most insidious piece of history you found?

(Implying) that this is what Martin Luther King, Jr. would have wanted is so unsettling. [The idea] that the King holiday or the King legacy is borne out in the success of Black McDonald’s franchise owners makes me really uncomfortable. One of the visions for the MLK holiday from Coretta Scott King’s perspective was to have this as a national day for workers. And then it turns into this Disneyland holiday.

But it’s so hard for us today to imagine the stakes. Why there’s intrigue and rumors, and maybe there’s homicide, and maybe not—all this drama—it’s because people could not have imagined an opportunity like this. In 1972 and 1973, a lot of the men who were entering franchises were born in the ’20s and ’30s. This is something I’m probably more sympathetic about than I am about most things.

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When I talk about McDonald’s advertising, some of it’s really cringey, like where they’re trying to be “down” in the ’70s. I said, “Okay, some of this feels really racist,” and it is. But you have to understand this stuff was effective, like Jive talk in advertisements, because Black people had been so fundamentally ignored.

So much of what you’re presented with in the U.S. is that you matter because you can buy things. Consumer citizenship might make us uncomfortable, but it’s real. And if McDonald’s is willing to pretend it’s down, it’s effective. It’s embarrassing from our perspective, but we underestimate that stuff to our own peril.

McDonald’s had leaders in every sector of the Black community as its spokespeople, supporting institutions like the United Negro College Fund. How can we separate this relationship between the company and Black cultural and political institutions? How can it end?

“Community-based solutions, in which success is not predicated on scale, but on sustainable transformation, are key.”

It’s hard, but I think we have to start weaning ourselves off this idea that everything has to be sponsored in a certain way. With the disaster that is COVID right now, [with] people’s pivot toward mutual aid, their critiques of the state, and [their awareness of] the deep levels of failure with COVID, there will be enough Disaster Capitalism that has already set in. There will be people again who are pushing back and saying, “Remember that time everything failed, because capital was allowed to drive this process? No more, we’re not doing that anymore.”

I think community-based solutions, in which success is not predicated on scale, but on sustainable transformation, are key. There’s going to be a paradigm shift, and people are going to back away from [centering capitalism as a solution]. I also think the corporations themselves, especially during the George Floyd summer, said so much nonsense that people were kind of like, “Y’all, really?” We are at a moment where there’s no longer this feeling that the innovators can out-innovate us from our problems.

What surprises you when you discuss this framework and specific corporate history with decision-makers or influencers in the public sphere?

People are starting to realize that nothing is inevitable, and no one has a natural affinity toward any kind of food; everything in the marketplace is a relationship that has to be cultivated and taught. There isn’t something deficient in one community because they like burgers and fries, rather, burgers and fries have come to mean something else for [those] communities.

They’re also realizing that interventions that only hit one note, you know, “If you eat this, this is bad for you, and you will die” are not effective for behavior change. If we want people to eat different things, we have to create structures where there are many options available in front of them. When I was on the road with the book, someone would be like, “Oh, I do community gardens, and I had to teach people how to cook kale.” I was like, “Did you ask them what they’re making an hour and how are they surviving before you started getting into what they’re eating?”

As someone in her early 40s, I was part of the move from food as food to the idea of restrictive and punishing [diets] in the ’80s. Food was something you had to be very careful about. I never had butter as a kid, never had white bread. You had one egg a week. We ate a lot of oatmeal. I witnessed that transition from food as an enemy to food as pure indulgence, the rise of Instagramming food and eating things with tons of bacon—that cultural shift.

What I found was that the idea of cooking and food as leisure cuts across a number of racial demographics, but it’s such a class thing. And it’s such a mood within some of the food justice spaces. People think that if you just tell people to cook it creates all of this change, rather than spending the same kind of energy telling employers to pay more money and give people free childcare, free college, and Medicare for all. If you do that, then I’ll join you in the “Let’s make kale” work. But if your food justice intervention starts with, “What are you eating every day?” then you’re doing it wrong.

What question do you wish more people would ask you about this book, and in service of this work?

I wanted to write a book for everyone. I wanted to write a book for historians to say that we can write corporate history and economic history from a different kind of lens; you can write civil rights history that isn’t about marches.

As for the general public, I wish more people would say, “I’ve read your book, and now I’m going to be suspicious of anyone who says ‘Support Black business’ as the answer.” I wish they would ask, “What are the policies that are most important in creating justice in our food system?” and realize that they’re not explicitly about food; they are about the ways that we live.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rae Gomes is a mother, writer, food justice activist, and organizer based in Brooklyn, New York. Read more >

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