McDonald’s in the Post–Civil Rights Era, with Marcia Chatelain

McDonald’s in the Post–Civil Rights Era, with Marcia Chatelain

An interview with Marcia Chatelain, the author of Franchise—a book about how “stateless people found some comfort in a corporation.”

(Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

Booked is a series of interviews about new books. For this edition, Christian Hosam spoke with Marcia Chatelain, author of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America (Liveright).

In Franchise, Marcia Chatelain argues that McDonald’s nationwide expansion in the late 1960s was inextricably tied to the aftermath of the civil rights movement. For black communities, fast-food companies were both solution and symptom. On the one hand, they often were willing to do business in riot-afflicted black communities where others were not, creating gathering spaces and opportunities for jobs and community revitalization. On the other hand, fast food served as a stand-in for the state; it represented the move from government-backed civil rights to the “silver rights” to participate in the market economy. In this interview, we discuss how writing this book changed Chatelain’s outlook on racial capitalism, the role of corporate diversification in blunting racial progress, and how activists focused on getting communities of color to make better choices when it comes to food can rethink their approach to food justice.


Christian Hosam: How has writing Franchise shifted or confirmed how you think about black capitalism and the racial state?

Marcia Chatelain: I’ve always been skeptical of the premise that empowerment is all we need, whether we’re talking about feminism or black freedom. In writing this book, I started with the idea that African-American McDonald’s franchise owners saw themselves as extensions of the mid-century civil rights movement. I was critical of that premise, until I discovered that the civil rights establishment was very much a part of bringing franchising to black America. That helped me shift my thinking into how deeply our ideas about justice and opportunity and equality are shaped by capitalism—how a decidedly capitalist enterprise can repackage itself as in the service of black freedom.

Hosam: The civil rights establishment seems to find it really intuitive to make the move from a liberation movement to what you call “silver rights.” We go from boycotts for workers’ rights and economic justice under King to trying to secure franchisees a spot in the McDonald’s Corporation.

Chatelain: So often in contemporary politics people misread liberal politics as leftist or radical—imagining, say, that people who are striving for voting rights, opportunities for business ownership, and the end of segregation are necessarily radicals. The fast-food franchise fits perfectly within the paradigm of liberalism, in which everything is a matter of individual opportunity, rather than the need to dismantle structures of exploitation or oppression.

The conversation about franchising and business ownership came out of the idea that movements have to grow up—and that maturity, for ideologues and activists, always leads toward capitalist ventures. I think that’s the premise that allowed a lot of the expansion of McDonald’s in black communities to really work. What did it mean for civil rights to grow up? It wasn’t that civil rights needed to be more radical or make further demands upon the state; it’s that it had to participate in the dominant economic structure.

Hosam: A toxic dynamic of black capitalism comes out of the legitimate need for economic development in dispossessed communities. As a result, black franchisees end up with this outsized power in their communities. You show this with the case of Charles Griffis, a franchisee whose legal conflict against McDonald’s was supported by the NAACP, including through boycotts. “Black issues” that deserve attention from civil rights groups are only legible when they’re in pursuit of capitalist rights. Lack of healthcare, workers’ rights, and the economic progress of the black worker never arise as principal concerns. Economic development as a goal is not bad in and of itself, but often economic development is only legible when it’s talked about through the lens of the elite.

Chatelain: Absolutely. And that has always been the case. When I first started to examine the story of Charles Griffis, I was uncomfortable with this person using the NAACP to try to adjudicate against McDonald’s, and a friend of mine raised a really good point: isn’t that what the rich do? They use the court system and the law to their advantage. Why is he any different? And I think that was absolutely right. As a black franchise owner, as a black capitalist, he saw the NAACP as a potential resource, an organization that could intervene on his behalf and secure his rights to make money the way he wanted to.

I want to be clear that, in looking at stories like these, I am indicting racial capitalism and the racial state, which put people in a position in which they see this industry that has some nefarious practices as salvific. I also wanted to trace how fast food was able to take root in black communities—because of this racial state—as a challenge to left-leaning food and nutrition mobilization folks who are very quick to indict black people for the things they eat without seeing a critique of capitalism as central to the food justice movement.

Hosam: You spent less time than I thought you would in the book on public health crises coming out of fast food. How should we think about public health as cross-cutting with these enterprises?

Chatelain: There’s a paternalism in some of the ways in which these food issues are discussed that suggests that there is a moral or ethical lack in people consuming lots of fast food. You realize that a lot of people who are concerned about food and nutrition choices never think about consistent access to electricity or about what happens when gas service is cut off because people can’t afford to pay gas bills during cold months. Very few people really recognize how good the calorie-dense foods that are offered at fast-food restaurants are for people who may have to work multiple jobs and need a short-term boost. While the book doesn’t focus a lot on food, I think it helps open up the types of questions that people should ask—not about individual choice, but about the structural failures that put people in such close proximity to choices that never fully rise to meet their needs. Organizing against state failure and structural harm should be part of any movement to help people make choices about what they consume.

Hosam: The idea of fast food as part of a public health crisis is related to the assumption that fast-food restaurants are hotbeds for crime and delinquency. Your book reverses the causal arrow. Fast-food restaurants actually start to come up in the aftermath of riots and state evacuation.

Chatelain: Right. In the early twentieth century, fast food was targeted toward working-class people and people who are out late at night, so there is a stink of vice on the industry. What the McDonald’s brothers were so smart about was converting something that was associated with, say, teenage freedom and making it family-friendly.

When fast food gets into black communities and poor black communities in particular, however, it once again becomes this place with all these negative associations. Part of what gets lost in that frame is what is happening in the rest of the community. Why do people have to congregate there? Why is this the place where kids can hang out? Why is this one of the few places that’s open all night? The crime has already been done—the structural crimes, the chaos has happened. An uprising happens, and that is when there’s scrutiny on these places. It’s interesting that there are these negative associations with fast food because, in fact, what allows fast food to emerge in the first place are these extreme and chaotic conditions.

From the early twentieth century to the present, when groups are empaneled to find out why there was an uprising, black residents say, “We don’t have proper jobs, we have poor quality housing that we’re getting overcharged for, the police keep beating us up, our kids barely have resources that they need for school and for recreation, and businesses are disrespectful and they overcharge us.” The business part is the part that gets responded to. There’s no political will to abolish police abuse, there’s no deep desire to create affordable housing, but oh, you have a problem with business? Okay, we can fix that.

Capitalism is so seductive because it can make you believe that the opportunity for economic prosperity for some is equivalent to justice for all.

Hosam: Black capitalism is equal parts seductive and coercive.

Chatelain: One hundred percent. I always say that, even if you think you’re too smart or too clever or too radical to be sucked in, you will find yourself sucked in by some elements of it, because it’s so powerful. But I also believe that people are powerful, and that there is nothing inevitable about this relationship between black freedom and capitalism. This relationship has been cultivated and massaged and tethered to loftier ideals, and people are entranced by it—sometimes because they are desperate, sometimes because they’re greedy, sometimes because of their own idealism. If we don’t think through those complexities, if we are simply concerned with issues of health and nutrition and choices and what people are eating, then we will never, ever really know what to target.

Hosam: I want to return to the issue of public space. In these communities there is no place that’s open all night. There is no place for people to congregate. In Melissa Harris-Perry’s book Barbershops, Bibles, and BET, she argues that black politics are distinct from American politics in general for many reasons. One is that you cannot think about sites of deliberation in the same way for black people. The public square isn’t open to them in the same way. These corporate sites, whatever we might think about them, do, in fact, serve as sites of deliberation. They serve as community centers, in some ways.

This is connected to a bigger fallacy of agency under racial capitalism. Businesses present themselves as creating more opportunities for black people, but at the same time, they create all these new and horrifying traps. I want to connect this to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s work on predatory housing and predatory inclusion—how “even when black people are no longer legally excluded, the consequences of their decades-long exclusion shaped the terms upon which they were included.”

Chatelain: I think predatory inclusion is the perfect framework. Something is dangled in front of you, and because you understand the way history has worked, not only in your lifetime but in the lifetime of those passed, you are unable to resist it, because you understand how narrow the window is for you. The deep desire to feel freedom pushes you to find it in all the places that you can. I try to take seriously how exciting it felt to go to a fast-food restaurant in 1974, because you’ve only had about a decade of supposed federal protection to even be in public. It helps us to understand why something that we may find bad can be so alluring and can make people hopeful. Predatory inclusion is part of a throughline of constrained choices. You have options, but they’re all really bad. So how are you going to choose the best one for you and your community? I hope my intervention, which I think Taylor’s work does really well, allows us to see that we’re being told we need to integrate into a house that’s on fire—to show the cost of this predatory inclusion.

Hosam: I want to quote something you write toward the middle of the book: “When McDonald’s managers could be relied on more than school administrators or police officers, then the lines between where leadership and power rested in a city could become so blurred that a fast food restaurant could begin to look like a solution instead of a symptom.” You connect the dots to show how McDonald’s entry into the black community is a precursor to the corporatization of black politics.

Chatelain: In 1974, there was a horrible chemical gas leak in a predominantly black neighborhood in Chicago, where people living in public housing were not evacuated for hours, even while they could see this environmental damage cloud over their homes. They were very angry because the police had done very little to evacuate them. When the police finally showed up, however, people were afraid to leave, because they were afraid that someone would rob them, that their homes would be unprotected. The police had to promise that they’d watch over their things as they got loaded into buses. They didn’t know what was going to happen, they had no concept of the consequences of this chemical explosion on their health and the health of their community, and, even if there were consequences, who was going to see them? They arrived at a high school gym with no information, and the authority figure that was most visible was a black McDonald’s franchise owner. He had food for them.

I talk about this story in terms of an unresponsive state that does not value black life. In these moments where it really is a matter of survival, the part of the community that is responsive enough to black pain and suffering, and has enough capital to actually do something about it, emanates from McDonald’s. This becomes a common solution to crisis after the War on Poverty—a potential framework for some type of restorative or reparative state measures—is dead and buried. People are left to their own devices. When I originally conceptualized Franchise I would talk about it as a book about how McDonald’s replaced the state in black America. If I were to revise that description for today, I would say, this is a book about how stateless people found some comfort in a corporation.

When you think about the corporatization of black politics, it is about where power and resources reside. McDonald’s, and the other corporations that followed suit, understood that the way you get the loyalty of the black consumer isn’t necessarily in the quality of the product or the quality of service, or the quality of job you can provide; it’s making sure you affix it to the organizations and structures and people who have gained the trust and the admiration of black America. It’s the external work, it’s the sponsorships, it’s the relationships between McDonald’s and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, or with black artists, that helps ensure that, when there is a crisis, or when there is a deep desire to see some type of representation or connection, it is mediated through McDonald’s.

Hosam: What’s important about what you just said is that, while black people might be stateless, the state is not gone. The state’s role is very important here. It underwrites notions about the social function of business, and plays a role in shaping how McDonald’s thinks about its corporate diversification strategy—a multinational corporation that can claim it is supporting black entrepreneurship through franchising, and therefore receive all sorts of subsidies.

Chatelain: The state’s absence creates the vacuum, but the state understands that, by engaging and supporting this type of predatory inclusion, it allows itself to appear that it is trying to help. It allows people on the left and the right to believe in the state’s capacity to do justice through economic empowerment and supporting black capitalism. It not only dampens a radical critique of capitalism but amplifies the most conservative voices, which claim that the marketplace can adjudicate things that the marketplace is never designed to adjudicate.

Hosam: I want to end with a question about the cast of characters in Franchise. Even though this is a deeply devastating book, it’s also quite humorous and even absurd. You talk a lot about people who I would call “hucksters,” from Charles Griffis to Detroit franchise mogul La-Van Hawkins. There’s this whole passage in the book about Sisters Chicken & Biscuits, a Wendy’s subsidiary in the 1980s that was trying to evoke black women in a roundabout way but was owned and operated by white people. I had thoughts of Tyler Perry running through my head as I read about it. Both the corporations and the franchises themselves get by quite a bit on bombast and spectacle. How does this illuminate the themes of the book?

Chatelain: The characters in the story are people who have been quite masterful at taking all the black political traditions and using them in the service of their own economic interest. When they need to evoke the legacy of slavery, they evoke the legacy of slavery. And when they need to talk about how they are aligned with the goals of the civil rights movement, they’re there. When they need to castigate black people for not doing x or y or z, they can take on a punitive tone. I think the strategy is to amalgamate all of the various ways that black America is talked about and talks about itself in order to reduce the possibility of any critique of capitalism. They deploy these traditions in their own interests, and then turn around and say, look at all these things I do for the community. Throughout the book, there are people who are self-interested in many ways but also tethered to this idea that they have a unique responsibility and obligation to black people and their freedom. I don’t doubt that; but I hope the book exposes the inadequacy of many of their solutions, and allows us to think about different responses to crisis and what capitalism can—and can’t—do.

Christian Hosam is a PhD student in political science at the University of California—Berkeley.

Marcia Chatelain is the Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at Georgetown University and the author of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America (Liveright).

tote | University of California Press Lima