June 18, 2020
This past March, during the early weeks of the pandemic, McDonald’s launched a campaign featuring a pulled-apart version of its iconic golden arches. Intended to “encourage consumers to keep each other safe through social distancing,” the ad drew backlash from thousands of social media users—including Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Surreal as this episode may seem, it’s just the latest example of how McDonald’s and its global coterie of franchises have pioneered the use of community engagement and identity-forward marketing to drive profit. In her recently released book, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, Marcia Chatelain—New America’s 2017 Eric & Wendy Schmidt Fellow—traces how McDonald’s tested and perfected this strategy on black American communities. The history she relates features a lively cast of entrepreneurs, activists, and political leaders, all of whom developed a shared investment in what the Nixon administration termed “black capitalism.” That concept has remained consistent in the intervening six decades: a belief that the most effective redress for dispossessed, disenfranchised black Americans is investment in entrepreneurship and private business in black communities—typically, fast food franchises.
I spoke with Chatelain about Franchise and the complex factors that led burgers—and the golden-arched chain that popularized them—to play such an outsized role in black America.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and context.
The narrative for Franchise really begins with the assassination of Dr. King. You illustrate very effectively how this violence produced not just a lot of anger and mourning in the black community, but also a shift in the approach taken to fighting for black advancement. And, as you note, one of the more important things that led to that shift was white residential and economic flight. Now that wealthier, whiter populations are reentering cities—leaving suburbs blacker and poorer—how have the dynamics you highlight in the book evolved?
A reason I want to highlight what the fast food industry’s migration into black communities has to do with these economic shifts is because when we think about the origins of the urban crisis, we often isolate them in terms of housing. But part of why so many communities were vulnerable to being infiltrated by fast food was because of the loss of businesses and the larger market. Essentially, after 1968, a lot of business owners no longer wanted to do business in predominantly black communities—either because they thought they would be the target of threats, or that they would lose their business to uprisings.
So land values started to decline during this time. McDonald's owned the real estate in which it built, so they had an opportunity not only to bring in African American franchise owners to assume the liabilities of doing businesses in this community, but also to build much more cheaply.
So when we talk about fast food, it isn't just about market saturation. It's also about economic factors like land ownership, and it's about the federal government underwriting the franchise industry through subsidies of minority business owners. It really highlights the complexities of an economic system that makes some communities more vulnerable to having fast food migrate in.
Because of the structure of the economy and the ways the government incentivized the push toward black capitalism and fast food franchising, a wide variety of people—many of whom didn't necessarily agree in other areas—came together. How did the state convince so many disparate actors to see fast food franchising as a silver bullet of sorts?
I think that's what's so amazing about black capitalism—which then becomes black empowerment, which just becomes black economic development or black generational wealth politics. It’s able to unite people across a wide ideological spectrum. Economic investment is something people can realize in a relatively short period of time; it doesn't require the deep and hard work of dismantling white supremacy like other ways of reconfiguring or transforming society. It also, in the late 1960s, didn’t challenge segregation for people who were anti-integration. It makes liberals feel like something tangible is happening, because these initiatives do create jobs and promote some type of wealth.
It's really interesting to think of the number of people who were adherents of Dr. King and then started to pivot toward business and economic development. I think it largely happened because people were discouraged that the passage of federal policies didn’t necessarily contribute to improvements in the quality of black life. The lofty goals of beloved community and brotherhood of man are really, really hard, and there's something immediate about seeing a business come into a community. So those shifts in priorities after ‘68, I think, reflected the fact that people had seen a tremendous amount of change, but didn't see how that change translated in the lives of the most vulnerable.
The military industrial complex makes repeated appearances in Franchise. You start the book in Ferguson, with the killing of Mike Brown—and where, during the ensuing protests, the police had access to military weapons. You also note that many of the first franchisees were veterans who saw the military as a chance to find career opportunities—and who later brought those military mindsets to the franchises they ran. McDonald's itself viewed the line system as something akin to military organization. What do you think that says about how power brokers saw black communities, and what franchising looked like as it rolled out to America at large?
I think the military does move across this story, and I love that you brought that up. The first thing I discovered in my research was that white franchise owners who had left the military were able to use business loans that were part of the GI Bill to get into fast food franchising. This funding became an opportunity for white franchise owners to build their wealth.
The other part of it is, what brings a lot of fast food into black communities in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s is chaos—the chaos of uprisings, which brings in the military, the national guard, and local police. During these times, McDonald's was sometimes the place where people in uniform would gather, or where they were able to collect vouchers for meals. So there is a way in which that militarization of urban spaces as a response to racial unrest very much coincides with the story.
As for the African American franchise owners I wrote about, a lot of these men were part of a generation when black men joined the military to increase their opportunities. But they still saw the inequality of what was available to them after they left military service, and they realized their displays of patriotism didn’t necessarily level the playing field.
That connects to another recurrent element in the story: the gender lens that was brought to the rollout of fast food franchises, and the way that connected to a lot of other social and political trends during this period. In giving recommendations to McDonald’s and other franchises, marketing and communications agencies echoed things that appeared in government reports like the Moynihan Report, laying the blame for black poverty on family disorganization and a crisis of manhood. How do you think gender shaped our thinking on food, family, and the franchise?
Gender is really important to understanding our assumptions about who has the authority to solve problems of civil society and family. On the one hand, we see the vilification of black women in things like the Moynihan Report and in a larger culture that’s constantly critical of how black women treat their family and children. And then there's a fast food industry that is deeply dependent on black women needing to provide cheap food fast for their kids.
This is also a source of criticism for them in the outside world. With the introduction of African American franchise owners, you see more black women working inside McDonald's, and you see their entry contributing to the feminization of service after women had historically been kept out of McDonald's restaurants. So you start to see these different layers, where black women as consumers and workers are really important for the industry, but black women who feed their children fast food are vilified. Those dynamics, I think, helped reinforce not only the stereotypes, but the many contradictions of our relationship to fast food.
One thing that happened as a result of franchising was that civil rights figures like Jesse Jackson started talking about silver rights—the power of the consumer. I'm interested in what you think are the limits—but also, potentially, the power—in thinking about the ways we can influence the world as consumers.
I feel very conflicted about this idea, because I do understand and respect the power of the consumer boycott. But I'm always really cautious when we frame our participation as people in communities around ideas of consumer citizenship, or citizenship broadly: There are people who will always be kept out of that. When we emphasize this idea of being a citizen, what do we do with people who are undocumented? When we focus on the consumer, what do we do with people whose buying power isn’t strong because they're poor or working class? So, ultimately, I think it's important for people to consume as conscientiously as possible. But I do not think that we should ever believe that our simple role as consumers is how we leverage our power.
As we enter a new decade, how do you think McDonald's and other fast food franchises are now viewed by the black community? And how is our understanding of food justice growing?
I think McDonald’s still has a strong market presence in the black community—a presence that’s challenged every day by the expansion of fast casual and people’s concerns about health. At the same time, one of the things I emphasize in my book is that the desire to eat something is about more than just the food. It's also about the complex feelings and associations people have with McDonald's. If they knew someone who was in the McDonald's All-American Game, if there was a franchise owner who gave them a first job, if they really enjoy some of the programming McDonald's underwrites during Black History Month—there's a number of reasons to choose food that have nothing to do with your palette.
What I hope continues to happen is people doing the work of raising consciousness about nutrition, expanding the number of grocery stores in places that are deemed food deserts or victims of food apartheid, and asking more critical questions about structure—rather than fixating solely on whether people are eating french fries. Because when we hyper-focus on individual food choices, we lose sight of our responsibility to interrogate the structures that make those choices possible.
What is your view on the current landscape for publicly engaged scholarship? In the process of working on this book, did you learn anything about engaging communities and activists?
I believe in culturally engaged scholarship. Whether we're talking about medical research for vaccines, or our arts communities making beautiful music, or our ability to tell different stories about America’s past, the academy must explain to the public why we are working on behalf of all people—whether or not they attend college, or want to.
Academics don't do themselves a favor if they really believe there isn't a public they can engage and ignite with their work. I'm a strong believer that history is one of the most potent tools an activist community or campaign can use, because they can learn about frameworks and models of the past that were successful and unsuccessful. It can also help people understand that they're part of a larger narrative of struggle, change, and progress. And the thing that’s most important to me—as someone who tries to do that engaged scholarship—is to be both critical and very empathetic toward people who, whether in 1970 or 2020, are trying to make the best decisions they can under conditions that are designed to limit our options and choices.
Racism and capitalism work together to make people believe they have no power, and then to limit as many opportunities as possible for people to exercise the power they have. With that kind of knowledge and appreciation, I've been able to look at these stories that are very easy to dismiss and say: This is why people were making these decisions. Or, these were places where people could have amended their approach, but they had no idea what the future held. The more research historians like myself engage, the more capacity we have to try to extend that kindness to the people that we study—both past and present.
(Editor's note: New America has amended its house style guide to capitalize Black when it is used as a proper adjective—describing a diaspora, community, or group—in order to properly recognize the identity of Black people. We defer in this piece to the author's preference of lowercasing.)