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When McDonald's Was A Road To Black Liberation

Dion MBD for NPR

With the distance of time, I can see that my first McDonald's was an unremarkable thing. There were the antagonistically hard plastic seats. The interior lights that seemed meant to shoo you away. The PlayLand with the broken-down carousel that yelped out tinny renditions of John Philip Sousa songs. And of course, there was that smell: maybe a little bleach, but mostly the aroma of cooking french fries that seemed engineered to induce a limbic response.

But as it was my first McDonald's, it was the one I imprinted on and to which I would compare all other fast-food establishments forevermore. The store on Broad and Carpenter was a waypoint between my mother's South Philly rowhouse and my grandmother's, which meant that several times a week, my mom had to bat away entreaties from my sister and me when we walked past.

So much of my neighborhood has changed since I was a kid — the notorious Martin Luther King projects were razed, public schools were shuttered and once-thriving churches shriveled up — but that McDonald's still sits brightly and defiantly on the corner of Broad and Carpenter. It's almost certainly changed hands in the four decades it's been there, but that McDonald's remains one of my old neighborhood's most enduring institutions.

And as I learned recently from Marcia Chatelain's new book, Franchise: The Golden Arches In Black America, the preponderance of Golden Arches in locations like my poor, redlined, black neighborhood was hardly some accident. Chatelain, a historian at Georgetown and host of The Waves podcast at Slate, outlines a forgotten history of the fast-food behemoth's rapid expansion into black America in the post-civil rights world.

There were the tense, occasionally violent standoffs between the Black Panthers and local franchisees reluctant to contribute to the group's free breakfast program. There was the company's reluctance to extend franchising to black owners in inner-city locations — which dissipated when those stores became uncommonly profitable as they were often infood deserts.

For champions of "black capitalism" — which included civil rights leaders and President Richard Nixon — McDonald's franchising was thought to be an avenue for small business development that could economically empower black communities without government intervention.

I talked to Chatelain about her book, how McDonald's fitfully transformed itself from a predominantly white, suburban establishment to a decidedly black, urban one, and the ongoing economic, political and public health ramifications of that shift. (Oh. And also: Calvin.)

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You write that for most of its early years, McDonald's franchises were not officially segregated, but the company's franchisees were allowed to...

To use "local custom." And we all know what that means: to make their own determinations about how they were going to do business.

So what did that look like?

The McDonald's we know today is reallyRay Kroc's McDonald'sin the sense that there's franchise locations, there's uniformity in the kind of food you get, and expectations around service and value. So in those early days, McDonald's were largely in suburbs, largely in mostly white areas. And they varied. In the South, there was deep segregation at McDonald's. One of the gems that I found in the archive in researching this book is the activism of theStudent Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to integrate McDonald's, which I think is amazing because so much of our cultural legacy and history of the civil rights movement on a large scale is about businesses that no longer exist, like Woolworth's or Katz's Drugs or Rexall. McDonald's was also part of that fight, but it's no longer part of that larger memory.

Why is that, do you think?

I don't know, though I can speculate. McDonald's started to invest in black franchising after 1968, particularly after Martin Luther King's assassination, and there's a way that they've since grafted themselves onto the story of civil rights. You see it when they talk about the entry of black franchises. They say, "In response to the social movements of the day, we started recruiting black franchise owners." And black franchisees themselves really do see themselves as in the shadow of Martin Luther King. But that gets very complicated.

My book is about the constraints that black people live under — as consumers, as citizens, as activists, as participants — and the ways that they are trying to fashion themselves around McDonald's in order to keep a focus on the greater good.

In a broad sense, I think in the early days, the men who signed up to be part of this franchise experiment were influenced by two very powerful forces: this deep desire to extend the goals of the civil rights movement, and the re-invigoration of black capitalism as a strategy for black liberation and black attainment.

Both of these ideas — civil rights and black capitalism — have been with us for a very long time. But after 1968, it was the perfect storm, because there was deep distress about whether or not the goals of King's movement — of integration, of fair housing, of reducing war, of fighting poverty — if these things would ever materialize in a person's lifetime. But you could see a business opening and you could see the federal government providing subsidies for black people to enter things like franchising. I think the pivot towards black business and the embrace of black capitalism wasn't just about wanting to make profits, even though that was a part of it. I think it was to really be a salve for all the pain that people had absorbed in a very short period of time.

There were black critics of black capitalism, but there were also very white prominent proponents of it — including Richard Nixon.

Richard Nixon! Not a friend of civil rights, but he supported black capitalism. [Black capitalism] goes by various names throughout the 20th and 21st century, and it's alluring because it makes no demands on whites who do not want integration. It makes very few economic demands on the government. And it allows black people to have an experience close to the self-determination goals of black nationalism, and to embrace the idea of American liberalism, that there are opportunities for people who just work really hard and invest.

So it's this perfect — I don't want to call it a narcotic, but it is a drug. It's the perfect way for people to feel like their political needs are being met, because you can view it from all these different angles. And so Nixon's promotion of black capitalism — he even says, "black capitalism in the best sense of the word!" ; "it's black power in the good way!" — [was a way to say] you're going to own this thing and you're going to stay close to it and you're not going to disturb the white enclaves that I'm getting my votes from. And it worked.

You write that the entry of black-owned franchises into the McDonald's fold coincided not just with white flight from cities, but also a mass exodus of white-owned businesses, and with those businesses, jobs. So how did black folks from places like Chicago, which had the first black-owned McDonald's franchise, feel about the presence of these new stores?

It varied. And that's part of what I wanted to capture: There's nothing inevitable about fast food in black communities, and it was work on someone's part to make it part of the landscape. In cities like Chicago, where the first black McDonald's franchisee opens after April 1968, after Martin Luther King's assassination, [Herman Petty, a former barber recruited by the McDonald's company] inherits a store that's abandoned by a white franchise owner who no longer wants to do business in that community. Petty comes in and people really feel a sense of pride, because something in the community has reopened. Something has been established in a part of the city that was hit hard not only by the King uprising, but by gradual neglect of that community. And black McDonald's in Chicago still slaps, as the kids say.

But in other cities, people were more critical. In Cleveland, there were very successful white McDonald's franchises that the community really bumped up against because they felt like white people shouldn't be making that kind of money in their neighborhoods. In cities like Philadelphia, community groups were opposing McDonald's because they didn't like the idea that the city council was deciding what should be in their community — there were all these other resources that they felt they needed. There wasn't a uniform acceptance of McDonald's in those early days. And because of those tensions, I think the McDonald's corporation tried these various ways of ingratiating themselves to black people.

In one of our episodes, we profiled this guy named Tom Burrell, who was the person who basically invented what we now call targeted advertising. He was the person who, essentially, taught McDonald's how to sell stuff to black folks. And one example of that was those ads from the 1990s featuring Calvin.

MC: Oh my god. Calvin!

Calvin, a good kid from the hood, making a positive impact on his community because he got a job at McDonald's and worked his way up the ladder! It's a whole archetype: the person who found a way out of the ghetto through McDonald's. As I was reading your book, I realized that those ads sort of encapsulate all these ideas about the power of McDonald's — and black capitalism more broadly.

Let me tell you about Calvin. I talked to someone who had worked on the Calvin campaign, and part of the impetus for it was the emergence of the critique of fast food as a dead end and an uncool thing for teenagers to do. That's part of why they wanted to create these ads. But if you go to you YouTube and look up the Calvin ad, you'll see something really interesting in the very first one. As they try to set the scene, it's supposed to be the 'hood. They're brownstones — which now are probably like six million dollars — there's a group of young men who are just hanging out in the corner and they try to induce Calvin into being what one might describe as shiftless or menacing.

But Calvin's not with that! And he's also is wearing the baggy clothes. So you don't know how to read Calvin. It's like 40 seconds, if that. But in a very short period of time, you can fully understand what this job at McDonald's is keeping Calvin away from. The idea is that it isn't just the job — it's the discipline, it's the military-like order of these kinds of jobs. And that animates so much of how McDonald's communicated with black consumers. There's a whole series of ads that were in magazines like Ebony and Jet and Black Enterprise that don't talk about the food — they just talk about all the jobs that are created, all the scholarships that have been generated through black franchising.

McDonald's as a force for good.

McDonald's as a force for good. And my book is about the constraints that black people live under — as consumers, as citizens, as activists, as participants — and the ways that they are trying to fashion themselves around McDonald's in order to keep a focus on the greater good is something that I'm incredibly sympathetic toward.

So for all this pushing of the notion — "look, I started as a fry cook and now I own a franchise and I'm a millionaire" — do we know if the people who own McDonald's franchises actually make money?

There are very few people who have been able to really do that, because the amount of capital, the amount of liquid cash that you have to have to own a franchise is really high. In the '70s and 80s, when people who had kind of made it, young executives, African-Americans who are college-educated, who were able to earn well, some of them took risks and went into franchising and were able to make lots of money. But recent lawsuits and recent contentions involving McDonald's and black franchisees have again — like the broader history of black people — exposed how they are still making less money than their white counterparts. The black franchisees feel very much relegated to certain neighborhoods where operating costs are higher, which is cutting into the bottom line.

Some of the demands about modernizing McDonald's restaurants have hurt some of these black franchise owners. And I really struggled about writing a book about aggrieved millionaires, but what's so fascinating about race and capitalism is that you can be the big guy or the little guy, but you're still under the thumb of something.

So today, yes, you can become very wealthy as a black franchise owner. But part of that wealth is generated by building capacity — not just having one McDonald's store, but having 10 or 20 stores. And that's really hard to do. A large trend from the '90s that continues today is that very wealthy people, who are already well-situated, are able to get 10 or 20 franchises and make it part of their very diversified portfolio of wealth. So a lot of the recent negotiations about expanding franchising has resulted in very wealthy people just having a lot of franchises to themselves. But for the person who is still connected to an inner-city community and everyone knows him or her — that path is still a little more challenging.

Do you think McDonald's is in danger of losing its foothold in black neighborhoods?

I think what's happening to McDonald's and black people, broadly defined, is something that started since the '90s: upwardly mobile black people aren't as tethered to the things that McDonald's can provide in the communities where people are really struggling. So, for example, I can afford a lot of different types of foods. I can afford to live in a neighborhood that provides me a lot of options that are walking distance from my home. If I needed to get screened for diabetes, I can go to a doctor. I don't have to wait for health fair to happen at a local McDonald's. When I think about avenues for my children to pay for college, my first thought won't be, "Go work at a McDonald's, try to get that employee scholarship."

When you have more choices, you exercise them. And so I think that for communities that are struggling, that relationship hasn't changed that much, even in light of these critiques. But for people who have more mobility and have been groomed in a way in which they are not as afraid to eat in other places, that the way that McDonald's markets stuff doesn't resonate as much with them because they have a broader set of experiences.

I also think that it's challenging for black franchisees who have been deeply invested in the franchising system to make the case to a younger generation that this is the family business that you should get into. And so I think the McDonald's corporation has been struggling for the past decade, maybe two decades, because of the rise of fast casual, because of gentrification in some of these neighborhoods that were exclusively black and now there's a new demand. They're just competing in a more crowded field that learned a lot of lessons from them and are doing what they do better.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gene Demby
Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.