The First Job, The Polling Place, The Community Space: How McDonald's Became 'The Closest Thing To Home' For Black Communities

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Marcia Chatelain has written a cultural history of the McDonald’s Corp in her book "Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America." She talked with "To the Best of Our Knowledge" producer Shannon Henry Kleiber about the intersection of fast food, race and capitalism in the United States.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Shannon Henry Kleiber: When did you realize that what so many of us think of as just a fast food chain is something so much more?

Marcia Chatelain: When I was in high school, I participated in a locally televised, very low-budget African-American history quiz bowl show. The program was sponsored by a local chapter of the National Black McDonald's Operators Association. Years later, when I went to graduate school, I thought [about] how strange it was that my first introduction into a substantive piece of African-American history was by way of Black McDonald's operators. 

I just found that so fascinating that I started to think more and more about the role of Black franchise owners in the cultural and social life of African-Americans. And to talk about the ways that for Americans, fast food means different things in different places because of race.

SHK: Why did McDonald's seek Black franchisees out to replace white ones?

MC: A large part of that transition was because of the unrest after 1968 and the assassination of Martin Luther King. There had been conversations throughout the 1960s about the roots of civil unrest, and many people tied it into the fact that in many African-American communities, there was a lack of Black-owned businesses. But that was one of many prongs of why people were so frustrated and so upset with the system. 

The push for Black-owned businesses really reached its height when Richard Nixon initiated a program to promote Black capitalism. [At the same time,] in many African-American neighborhoods, white business owners no longer wanted to do business in communities in which they felt like they were the target of animus or criticism, or could potentially be the target of property damage. 

So in many ways, after April 1968, there was this perfect storm and all these forces were converging. You have a White House that's promoting Black business ownership. You have a mainstream civil rights organization structure that's starting to wonder if economic development should be the next turn in terms of movement activity. And then you have a number of white business owners who want to move to the suburbs. 

In this, McDonald's believes that they can possibly maintain their presence and grow in urban America if they recruit Black franchise owners to their system.

SHK: How unusual was McDonald's among fast food restaurants or other national chains in seeking out Black owners?

MC: In the late 1960s, because of some of the gains of the civil rights movement, there was a growing middle class of African-Americans who wanted the experience of consumer citizenship like everyone else. And so a lot of companies started to create advertisements that were supposed to bring in the Black dollar. But what distinguished McDonald's from all of these other attempts is that they saw that if they had Black franchise owners, they could get brand loyalty and recognition among Black consumers. 

They took it one step further because they not only were on the forefront of recruiting Black franchise owners, they were also on the forefront of creating ad campaigns that were designed by African-American advertisers and market research firms to connect to Black consumers in their reality, in their context. And that cultural work I talk about in the book was so important in helping people feel recognized and acknowledged and seen by McDonald's.

SHK: You talk about 1968 and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. as a turning point. Is there a story or an event at a McDonald's that you can tell us about that stemmed from that moment?

MC: Yes. One of the people I had the pleasure of interviewing was a man named Roland Jones, who was a McDonald's manager in Washington, D.C. And he talked about how immediately after King's death, he saw parts of Washington go up in flames, people taking to the streets and police clashing with civilians.

He was sent out to the store to see their conditions, and he did a pretty good job staving off very angry crowds and getting the McDonald's open again. And so he was recruited by McDonald's corporate to come to Chicago to do the critical work of identifying people who could become Black franchise owners. 

In another instance, in the 1970s, McDonald's was the site of an alleged bombing that some people said was done by the Black Panther Party [in] self-defense. Their local chapter, the Black Panther Party, said [it] did not bomb a McDonald's, but that McDonald's became a symbol of these tensions. How do businesses operate in good faith in predominantly African-American communities when they're not owned by African-Americans?

SHK: I was so surprised in reading your book that if you look at so many civil rights events in America since the 1960s, McDonald's turns out to be the setting and almost has a character role in so many of them. Like the 1992 L.A. riots after the beating of Rodney King, and the protests in Ferguson in 2014 after Michael Brown's death. 

In many cases, the buildings seemed like they were considered safe spaces and in turn spared any kind of destruction or looting. How did that happen? What did McDonald's come to represent?

MC: Well, it's funny. Now that I mentioned it, you will see it everywhere. McDonald's and chaos kind of go hand-in-hand in this strange way. Even before they recruited Black franchise owners after 1968, McDonald's was the site of a lot of civil rights activism about desegregation. 

In addition, McDonald's as a community anchor has been a reality in a lot of African-American communities because they're often the place where people can get first jobs. 

They're often the site of civic activities like voter registration, like senior citizen hangouts, and the Black franchise owners — because of their kind of unelected role in Black America — that person is often visible to community members as the person donating to historically Black colleges and universities or underwriting local youth sports. 

And so McDonald's believes that presence has inoculated it from being targets in moments like the 1992 uprising [in Los Angeles and [the 2014] Ferguson uprising. While that's not entirely accurate, I think it is a really powerful way of understanding that fast food is a quotidian part of our life. But boy, does it mean different things to different people.

SHK: What did the franchises mean for Black capitalism? You also talk about disaster capitalism, too. What are those two kinds of capitalism?

MC: After King's assassination in 1968, people become very invested in the idea of Black capitalism because they're just so exhausted in seeing these historic pieces of legislation — [laws that] are supposed to guarantee civil rights and that are supposed to guarantee voting rights and are supposed to end housing discrimination — not necessarily yield significant changes in the quality of people's lives. And so the idea is, well, maybe we should just pivot toward business. Maybe this is a moment for us to think about making money. 

And in similar ways, disaster capitalism is about people having to engage what I see as a lack of choices and options as a disaster. 

Capitalism is about these moments in which some type of natural disaster or some type of social disaster leads to a moment where corporations and businesses can kind of take over. They can privatize. They can capitalize on these great tragedies. Some people argue that Hurricane Katrina was a moment that allowed for a kind of disaster capitalism to evolve. And you see the privatization of the public school system. 

And so all of this is to say that in this period after 1968, African-Americans are legally protected in some ways, but they aren't getting access to the Great Society programs that are starting to wither. And the focus on poverty [had] shifted because of the Vietnam War — there's very little left and that void is filled by businesses. Businesses like McDonald's that are suggesting that they can deliver the needs of a community that have been left behind by the state.

SHK: It's so interesting as you track the public and private interactions and how McDonald's as a private organization has had kind of an outsized role in things that you think of as public responsibility. They were one of the only places some people could find Internet access. 

MC: Oh, absolutely. I used to live in Oklahoma, and in some places — in a more rural part of Oklahoma — the McDonald's is also where you can get air conditioning if your air conditioning goes out. 

I think it is important to recognize these multiple roles, socially and politically and culturally of a McDonald's, because so much the interventions about food choices and health and nutrition minimize the fact that fast food isn't just about the food. It's about memory. It's about nostalgia. It's about feelings of connection. It's about a lot of complicated emotions. 

When you tether the history of fast food to the importance and the gravity of the civil rights movement, I think it's really hard to just focus interventions among African-Americans on "burgers are bad for you. You should eat kale instead."

SHK: What about the negative health effects of this kind of food?

MC: You know, from my perspective, I'm very concerned about the ways that people who are leading interventions in health and nutrition, their awareness of history so that they can be more sympathetic and more patient and more thoughtful in how they address people about the personal choices they make around food.

And so one of the things that I try to emphasize when I talk to public health people is that it's important to teach people about nutrition and health consequences, but it's also important to engage people around the economic system that makes fast food the best rational choice a person can make for themselves and their communities and their families. 

How do you convince someone that fast food is not an optimal choice when they have three minutes to eat because they're working two jobs? How do you tell people about the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables if they're not sure that they can afford their electric bill to keep their refrigeration on? How do you tell people to have a different relationship to fast food? Vis-a-vis their children, when going to McDonald's is like the best treat that this child can have. And the McDonald's logo is on their sports jersey. And if it wasn't for McDonald's, they wouldn't be able to do band. 

And so thinking about the structures of capitalism that put corporations so deeply in our lives, those intimate relationships also have to be part of how we understand this problem.

SHK: Marcia, what parallels can we learn from as we navigate so many of today's challenges? What’s happening today that we can look back on the history of McDonald's and gain some understanding from?

MC: We have to understand that the roots of unrest have been identified, have been narrated for generations. There is nothing new about people taking to the streets in protest and in anger. There's nothing new about property damage. And unfortunately, there's nothing new about police brutality. So we have a long history of people identifying what the problem is. 

What we don't have is a rich history of us being creative on how we solve these problems. The idea that more Black businesses will mediate the real problems of racist violence is kind of a ridiculous idea. But we see that the default position has been one for a very long time. 

People are hungry, they're starving, they're upset. A business development program isn't going to necessarily address that. 

And I think in this moment, we have to remember that we actually still have public resources still. We have a system that is designed to serve people's needs. And it's called our taxes. It's called our common resources. It's called states. It's called leadership. 

We have to remember that, that we don't necessarily have to default to corporate solutions, that we have power within our own communities to find ways to get people the things that they need. 

And I really, really hope that we see this moment as an awakening to turn toward each other, to solve our problems, rather than believing that we have to wait for corporate sponsorship or underwriting in order to do it.