Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America by Marcia Chatelain

Exhaustively researched and beautifully written, Franchise tells the tale of how Black America and McDonald’s were inextricably linked from the very beginnings of the fast-food industry, and how corporations, politics, racism, redlining, and the foundations of our capitalist-based society collided with one another to grant a small handful of Black Americans the prosperity they were promised in the so-called American dream — while the communities where they resided continued to suffer the consequences. McDonald’s began its rise in the 1940’s as a single store in San Bernardino, California, where two brother’s invented a unique and dazzlingly efficient way to mass-produce hot food at an affordable price, but when Ray Kroc took over the the nationwide expansion of McDonald’s franchises, as they were called, a confluence of circumstances of the times — civil rights protests, boycotts, Black Power movements, Black Capitalism, etc. — persuaded him that inner-city and urban located restaurants should be managed and guided by Black entrepreneur’s. Kroc was hardly a liberal when it came to civil rights, Black business ownership, and racial equality, but he realized the best and most profitable business model for McDonald’s to survive racial upheaval’s of the 20th century was to put as many of his franchises into Black hands as possible. But at what cost? While a few Black McDonald’s franchise owners did indeed strike it rich, Black America as a whole continued to struggle with poverty, lack of resources, inequality, food insecurity, and crime, to name a few, and although McDonald’s continued its ascension to the top of the corporate fast-food world, the trials and tribulations of that rise continue to resonate and reverberate to this day. Chatelain is a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown, and she has put together a masterful book on the intersection of race, food culture, capitalism, and Black America. I haven’t eaten in a McDonald’s in years — and after reading Franchise, I’m pretty sure I won’t be eating in one for many years to come.

  • after the assassination of MLK, movement for racial justice pivoted to its focus toward Black business ownership
  • intertwined relationship between the struggle for civil rights and the expansion of the fast-food industry
  • on any given day, an estimated 1/3 of all American adults is eating something at a fast food restaurant
  • fast food is a prism for understanding race, shifts in the movement for civil rights, the discrimination of Black culture, and racial capitalism
  • today, fast food restaurants are hyperconcentrated in the places that are poorest and most racially segregated
  • economic inequality exacerbates health inequality
  • 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 critical
  • Coca-Cola capitalism: company relies on a massive outsourcing strategy to build a mass marketing giant
  • first national burger was White Castle
  • interestingly, In-N-Out never became a franchise
  • families of fast food franchising were mainly Southern Californians, racially homogeneous, privileged in their time
  • other fast food chains followed McDonald’s path as they identified and cultivated a Black consumer market and franchisee corps
  • exhausted freedom fighters wanted to convert social gains into economic ones
  • looked to Black business ownership as a viable way forward
  • reactions to King’s assassination — businesses would become vehicles for the economic prosperity that Johnson’s War on Poverty could never deliver
  • capitalism could loosen the grip that racism had over the quality of Black life
  • Nixon promoted legislation that provided business loans, economic development grants, as a means of suppressing Black rage and securing Black endorsements
  • government would prop up and underwrite the expansion of fast food restaurants in Black communities for decades
  • fast food industry provided a platform for Black culture and taste making
  • Black franchisees became leaders in their communities
  • after Rodney King, much of the post recovery analysis of South L.A. focused on the property damage to businesses and the disaffection of Black and brown consumers in neighborhoods where few Black or brown people owned businesses
  • capitalism can unify cohorts to serve its interests, even as it disassembles communities
  • Hollywood rarely censored racist content or took seriously the claims that was seen by white viewers on the screen had real implications for Black people on the streets
  • West was not a land of racial harmony
  • 1940, San Bernardino was on its way to becoming a utopia for the fast food industry
  • no one has definitively settled the debate about who made and marketed the first hamburger
  • dynamics that surrounded the building and expansion of McD’s depended on racial inequality
  • targets of slum clearance, public housing, became the food deserts of the 21st century
  • circumventing the negotiation for land leases and franchise subleases, investment in real estate was the most important reason why McD’s boasts their financial position unmatched by others
  • national enthusiasm for the marketplace, and the local realities of segregation, separated Black consumers from the nation’s prosperity
  • when it came to race, especially in the south, franchisees did not rock the boat
  • store owners filed injunctions in the 50’s and 60’s to suppress boycotts, marches, and demands to enforce laws equally
  • fast food chains in the South were particularly loyal to the local customs of segregation even when maintaining it was against their own interests or was out of step with other businesses
  • civil rights and voting act yielded little in terms of employment, health, housing, education
  • Kerner Commission: same moving pictures reshown over and over again, same analysis, same recommendation, same inaction
  • in Memphis when King was shot, substance of his address forecasts ways that economic issues would become central to civil rights visions in the 70's
  • calls for economic response to racial inequality
  • after calm post-MLK death, some white franchisees wanted out, and they would be allowed to walk away
  • McD’s decision to seek Black franchisees to replace white ones in Black communities was affirmed by influential voices which suggested that national trends indicated that if the nation did not act, U.S. cities would experience more disturbances
  • private business was the answer to problems
  • for African Americans, how hard you worked was an independent variable in the calculus of how much wealth you were able to build
  • Blacks were used to making the most out of what whites had cast off and what was left behind, fast food was no different
  • “Black stores”, grossed 25% more profits than white stores
  • by installing Black franchisees, McD’s was able to tap into a consumer base that was watching the exodus of big and small business in their communities
  • buy up land in the inner city at cheaper prices than in the suburbs
  • McD’s local level gains were a part of a larger political moment that would carry it into the next decades and affix it to Black America
  • Black capitalism’s great patriarch was Booker T. Washington, believed that in the absence of full citizenship, full economic power would be sufficient
  • appeal to small state conservatives was that it could ostensibly trickle down to lower classes of Black America as long as it remained segregated
  • Nixon’s actions were weak, but his rhetoric was powerful in this area
  • however, in terms of Black capitalism, nothing large scale, sustainable, or sufficiently funded emerged to make a difference
  • “white flight” — collapse of business districts created a parallel, racially based process
  • when white business owners fled Black neighborhoods or refused to reopen stores after unrest, flight of jobs, tax revenue, and services constricted an already limited marketplace
  • local level governments projected a semblance of economic progress at groundbreaking celebrations and ribbon cuttings
  • powerful newcomer into the inner city was fast food — Black capitalism undergirded the expansion of it into Black communities
  • McD’s and Burger King could sustain the ups and downs of market changes; new restaurants could be built on cheap land, old ones could be resuscitated at relatively low cost
  • neighborhoods had few drivers and few choices, exploiting the financial perils of poor communities
  • 40’s = efficiency, 50’s = desires of suburban nuclear family, 60’s = culture in conflict
  • by electing Black candidates, Black voters were also explicitly or implicitly supporting Black capitalism
  • talking about it and economic development in the inner city, Black elective leaders were able to secure their position of power without attracting too much opposition
  • McD’s had a tough time on the East Side of Cleveland, Hough neighborhood; uncertainty and instability
  • Black millennialism: belief that Blacks should invest in the future possibilities of an all-Black society within a larger racist one
  • McD’s sent a directive to all white owners of inner city franchises asking them to sell to all Blacks
  • Black power capitalism, at it emerged in Cleveland, prioritized Black ownership, wealth building, and community connectedness
  • fact that a fast food restaurant bore the weight of all these wants elucidates both the desperate state of Black Cleveland in finding vehicles to address economic disenfranchisement and the pragmatism of some Black leaders in using fast food’s expansion as a way to meet community demands for jobs, as well as avenues to business ownership
  • Black owned businesses in Black areas, who were involved in subsidizing swimming pools and neighborhood resources blurred the boundaries between company and community trust
  • boycott in Cleveland was about more than a business, it was testing the volume of Black voices in setting the standard and expectation of consumer citizenship
  • power and influence of McD’s and their ability to control the Cleveland crisis dampened the belief that gaining economic power meant gaining freedom from racism found in other power structures
  • viability of fast food in environments shaped by economic, racial, and social instability
  • Clevelanders were protesting to own the accommodation; boycott reflected the convergence of differing political ideologies in Black cities, contentions over ownership, terrains in which the future of Black struggle would play out, and the limits of Black politicians and Black capitalism
  • as fast food expanded, choice between a McD’s and no McD’s was actually a choice between a McD’s or no youth job program
  • 70’s = organized efforts to influence or stop fast food in Black neighborhoods became a proxy for talking about racial and economic inequality
  • could fast food be a good citizen to, neighbor to, or symbol of Black America?
  • Black Panther organizing illuminated a common sense theme in Black life in America: survival in the face of suppression
  • Panthers filled voids for the hungry, unemployed, and in Portland they were especially important to the sick
  • morning meal service became the most expansive of their offerings
  • McD’s became a totem for the challenges of Black people in Albina, Oregon
  • Panthers protest exposed how the brand was associated with unchecked white domination, police brutality, exploitative labor practices
  • health clinics and food program were a direct response to the difficulty in securing quality health care in poor Black communities and the continued nutritional challenges and difficulties experienced by Black families, especially single women with children
  • fast food ultimately undermined the elements of community that residents valued
  • exported dollars outside of their communities with franchise fees and high volume purchase orders that rarely, if ever, landed on the local business’s desk
  • contributed to the community at their discretion, not by mandate
  • increasing commercialization of a neighborhood amounted to the city and private sector allowing a business to strip citizens of their power to determine the community’s priorities
  • distance from fast food restaurants was not only a sign of affluence for Philly folks, but keeping them at bay was an indicator that communities had the power to determine their own destinies
  • excitement about Atlanta’s possibility in expanding the Black middle class, fortifying its historically Black colleges, and opening businesses that could revitalize poor communities motivated civil rights movement alums to pursue fast food franchising
  • Black power and other nationalist movements calls for Black self governance alienated some white liberals, who felt excluded or betrayed
  • fast food’s attempt to colonize Black America was not unchallenged; opposition to fast food was not solely about the industry itself, but rather who was profiting from it
  • fast food restaurants could symbolize economic possibility or structural perniciousness and bigotry, all a matter of perspective
  • what was at stake for Black America in the 70’s was whether a generation of citizens testing the strength of civil rights legislation, economic opportunity, federal policy, and corporate responsibility would let fast food become part of their worlds
  • funding national advertising was a contentious issue for Black franchisees of McD’s and Burger King, and it was likely a problem for other franchise systems
  • in America, there were few truly Black businesses
  • as “soul businesses” flopped one by one, white owned national chains took note of the centrality of amplifying soul in communicating to Blacks
  • integrate soul style into the selling of fast food
  • if Black people were indeed the soul of a nation, then the fast food industry was determined to feed it
  • Black franchisees were visible in various social aspects of community life
  • McD’s franchisees were regular funders of extracurricular activities, including sports, outside of schools
  • Black franchisees also responded to the fact that a mass of their clientele were earning low incomes, and sometimes assisted in helping families meet basic needs
  • charity, but also jobs for youth
  • unlike white suburban families that traveled to McD’s to indulge in their children’s fancy, Black families went to McD’s to satisfy hunger momentarily before heading back to the challenges of work and home life
  • advertising from the period reflected a more accepted idea that Black life could evolve and reflect progress independent of the white gaze of approval
  • Burrell projects of the 70’s: importance of male authority in the Black community and a home life, and Blacks living in modest and working class communities
  • Moynihan report/logic: argued that every problem was caused by and could only be solved by patriarchs
  • ads from the 70’s and 80’s focused on Black men and the families they ruled over
  • McD’s, according to ads, showed how they allowed Black families to be their very best
  • some did not age well
  • ads speak to a troubled relationship between Black consumer and private establishment dining
  • agencies began to devise marketing plans that created content targeting middle class and lower income Blacks separately
  • one TV spot, Calvin is transformed from a stereotype of a menacing Black youth to an ambitious and responsible one
  • heavy users of fast food were non white, principally Black, and other racial minorities
  • when Black women chose not to cook, they were willing to spend money on fast food
  • focus ads more on the 36% of Black families being led by women, in the late 70's
  • Blacks likely to spend more on accommodations and food than their fellow white vacationers
  • doesn’t want others to think he can’t afford the best
  • fried chicken sandwich was the basis of Black women’s small scale business life throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries as waiter carriers, who sold food to stopped train passengers along train tracks
  • McChicken taught McD’s that after their food became a staple, familiarity was more important than taste
  • King holiday became a prime opportunity to sell apolitical ideas like color blindness, which obscures the vicious impacts of racism on people’s lives and livelihood
  • every time a Black franchise sponsored a Black History Month celebration or donated to a historically Black college, McD’s was writing itself into an accessible, sanitized story about civil rights, in which the ability to own a franchise was tantamount to leading a movement for racial and economic justice
  • consumers make marketplace choices based on a constellation of emotions, past experiences, memories, desires, and actual hunger
  • fast food is as much about the spice levels on a friend chicken sandwich as it is about a franchisee paying for your child’s cash-strapped school to go to a museum
  • Black consumers proximity to franchises and franchising is far closer and more dependent because of their distance from economic stability
  • Black McD’s franchisees often found themselves in an uneasy position as both models of racial progress and victims of racial discrimination
  • most Black communities where McD’s stood were disproportionately affected by higher operation costs, and few of the restaurants were in solid condition
  • problem of fast food in Black communities was one of safety and limited institutional commercial choices as much as it was a symbol of unprecedented Black success and economic progress
  • Black capitalism of the 80;s linked the inability of Blacks to connect civil rights with the pursuit of silver rights to their own pathological failings, even as they sought structural redress from businesses in the form of employment and economic development
  • simultaneously blamed victims and oppressors
  • community meant the professionals and professional societies with the talents, skills, social capital to be included in the wealth that was being made off the backs of working and middle income people
  • NAACP became a major beneficiary of lucrative financial sponsorships from McD’s corporate coffers
  • announced agreement in the 80’s that reaffirmed commitment to economic development for Blacks and other minorities
  • key moment in how the franchise operated among Black communities across a broad spectrum
  • determined what was “fair share”
  • for more franchisees of color to enter the McD’s system and Black professionals to blaze trails in the McD’s headquarters — Griffs Boycott
  • consumer abstinence and business disruption strategy has been used for the purpose of organizing workers to raise wages, improve scheduling practices, or provide workers with child care facilities or transportation subsidies
  • King beating in L.A. = businesses occupied the center of the story as well, of what went awry when the chaos broke
  • L.A. looked to businesses to lead the effort to get back on track
  • declaration that a business was Black owned was believed to be a survival strategy during the crisis
  • McD’s was a citizen of Black L.A., and despite the calamity, it wasn’t going anywhere
  • success of a few Black elites had little impact on the life of those languishing in the very communities that house and staffed their businesses
  • Black franchises were viable solutions, it was only a matter of how many and how fast they could open
  • in post civil rights world, question of segregation and integration weighed heavily on Black consumers and business owners
  • 90’s = new fast food restaurants were settling in and around neighborhoods devastated by the introduction of crack into the urban drug market and greater efforts to police and incarcerate Blacks in an ongoing War on Drugs
  • Clinton/Empowerment Zones — taxpayer subsides helped establish and maintain fast food restaurants, and welfare reform helped supply applicants for low wage jobs
  • uprising and boycott opened the door for Blacks — on the other side of the door, however, was a plethora of low-wage jobs and a few people able to get rich
  • if a Black business was destroyed in an uprising, then the conclusion was that Blacks don’t value their own people’s businesses; few conversations lingered on why people were so upset
  • shortsighted to ignore the government subsidies, civil rights organization endorsements, limited community resources, and economic desperation that supports the dubious idea that fast food — and business on the whole — can solely, or even substantially or singularly, breathe life into an underdeveloped community
  • nation was well aware of long term impacts of a diet filled with food rich in fats
  • 1988 — first study of the relationship between diet and chronic disease
  • McD’s is not a “Black” company, but its ability to use the tropes of Blackness and skillfully leverage its Black franchisees in the service of proximity to Black communities provides a worthy, and insightful, entry point into thinking about racialized health disparities in the service of eradicating them
  • notion that fast food would save communities was a leap of faith some were unwilling to take
  • fast food problem linked to individuals with limited choices
  • with the departure from Black capitalism came a resounding endorsement of the Empowerment Zone idea
  • as nebulous as Black capitalism was as a goal for an earlier generation, empowerment was just as hard to capture
  • who was to be empowered? could power be held by many, and not just one?
  • politics of Black business can serve many interests, except for those of Blacks most susceptible to the extremes of capitalism and racism
  • book is concerned with the reasons that places like Ferguson are more likely to get a fast food restaurant rather than direct cash aid to the poor, oversight over the police, or jobs that pay more than $8.60 per hour after an uprising
  • fast food industry relies on indefinable, but palpable, emotional appeals to Black consumer citizenship, the extension of the mid-century march for civil rights toward the marketplace, and calls for racial solidarity under the expansive umbrella’s of “black capitalism”, and later “black empowerment”
  • origins of the urban food crisis reveal the ways that various actors aligned to use the symbols, language, and strategies of Black freedom movements to sell scores of hamburgers, myriad buckets of fried chicken, and gallons of soda
  • meeting of racism and capitalism can only produce demeaning and uncomfortable options
  • disparities are a result of a structural indifference to the depth of Black hunger for everything from nutritious foods to well-compensated jobs to racial justice
  • Naomi Klein — Disaster Capitalism — feeds on destruction and chaos
  • elimination of the public sphere, total liberation for corporations, skeletal society spending
  • fast food’s multivalent definitions are contingent upon who is eating it, where they are eating it, and how often
  • the fare at an earth toned Panera or Starbucks are both fast food products
  • quantity and consistency of food has always been a challenge for Black people and families in America
  • meeting of burgers and Black capitalism worked
  • must assess the lack shaped by the racist commitments of the state
  • food justice movements must interrogate the racist suppositions about poor people’s nutritional ignorance of the dangers of fast food and question the assumptions that Black people are innately attracted to it
  • when McD’s, or any other corporation, supplants the state in neighborhoods forced to scramble to acquire necessities for life, then we must adjust our focus to understand how this happened and continues to happen

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I love books, I have a ton of them, and I take notes on all of them. I wanted to share all that I have learned and will continue to learn. I hope you enjoy.

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Adam Marks

Adam Marks

I love books, I have a ton of them, and I take notes on all of them. I wanted to share all that I have learned and will continue to learn. I hope you enjoy.

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