Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Books: "Franchise" On McDonald's History In The Black Community

Franchise: The Golden Arches In Black America
By Marcia Chatelain
Liveright Publishing, a division of W.W. Norton & Company; hardcover; 28.95

Fast food is a staple of American life, and while it may appear to be something that everyone enjoys and depends on, it can mean something quite different to each community.

Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University, shows how it was a source of both power and despair for African Americans. 

In the new book, Franchise: The Golden Arches In Black America, Chatelain shows how fast food became a battlefield on which the fight for racial justice, and how that was intertwined with the fate of black businesses. She takes us from the first McDonald's in San Bernardino, California, in the 1940s, to civil rights protests at franchises in the American South in the 1960s and the McDonald's on Florissant Avenue in Ferguson in the summer of 2014.

On the one hand, fast food is blamed rightly for the rise in the rates of obesity and diabetes among black Americans, and a symbol of capitalism's disastrous effects on our nation's most vulnerable citizens.

Fast-food companies were also a source of economic opportunity and political power. After Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968, many activists turned to entrepreneurship as a means to achieve equlality. 

Civil rights leaders, fast-food companies, black capitalists, celebrities, and federal bureaucrats began an unlikely collaboration, in the belief that the franchising of these establishments by black citizens in their own neighborhoods could improve the quality of black life.

Black franchise pioneers were equipped with federal loans and utterly committed to the urban centers in which they would open their stores, and they achieved remarkable success. By the late 2000s, black-franchised McDonald's restaurants reported total sales exceeding $2 billion. 

At the same time, a parallel story emerged as well. Wealth was being extracted from black communities, which were being ravaged by fast-food diets, and the minimum wage jobs these places offered came with little hope for advancement.

In this excerpt, Chatelain writes of fast food's deep impact on the country: "The United States is the birthplace of some of the world's most successful fast-food brands, as well as the home of its most enthusiastic eaters. On any given day, an estimated one-third of all American adults is eating something at a fast-food restaurant. Millions of people start their mornings with paper-wrapped English muffin breakfast sandwiches, order burritos hastily secured in foil for lunch, and end their evenings with extravalue dinners consumed in cars. People of all ages and backgrounds enjoy fast food, but it does not mean the same thing to all people. For African Americans, the history of the development of the fast-food industry and its presence in their communities reveals the complicated ways that race is lived in America. Racism constrains choices and limits opportunities, from how much you earn to how much you live. Race also informs where you can sit comfortably and what foods are available to you. Even after segregation was legally dissolved by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African Americans were still left with a low ceiling hovering over their social and economic mobility. The restrictions that emerge because of race and class would place African Americans in a close relationship with an industry built on the idea that food could be delivered cheaply, uniformly, and without consideration of a person's social station. Fast food is a prism for understanding race, shifts in the movement for civil rights, the dissemination of black culture, and racial capitalism - the deep connections between the development of modern capitalism and racist subjugation and oppression - since the 1960s. Before fast food became a quotidian fixture of American life in shopping malls, schools, airports, and rest stops, it was an object of curiosity, fascination, and even hope for many black communities.

Today, fast-food restaurants are hyperconcentrated in the places that are the poorest and most racially segregated. Due to its saturation in black America, fast food is often identified as the culprit among the research on high rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension among blacks. Since the early 2000s, studies have focused on the relationship between access to healthy foods and the nutrition color line. Researchers have warned that a black child born in the year 2000 has a 53% chance of developing type 2 diabetes; the likelihood of a white child developing the potentially fatal disease is less than 30%. In 2015, nearly 75% of African-American adults and 33% of black adolescents were considered overweight or obese. Blacks were 1.4 times more likely than their white counterparts to be obese. Economic inequality exacerbates health inequality, and poor and working-class black families often lack access to quality preventative health care. In the year that Ferguson entered the national consciousness, the average white family had the equivalent of one month's income in liquid savings, while a black family could rely on only five days of pay."

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