Earlier this week, a friend and I went to hear Dr. Marcia Chatelain live at the JCCSF in San Francisco. Dr. Chatelain was there to talk about her new book … but that’s not why I wanted to hear her. I’m a regular listener to Undisclosed, a podcast about wrongful convictions. About two years ago, they did a very deep dive into the story of Freddie Gray, a young Black man who died in police custody in Baltimore in 2015. I admired everything about this series, and came away wanting to know more about just about all of the people who created it: and Dr. Chatelain provided the historian’s perspective, offering much-needed context.
So when I saw she was speaking in San Francisco, I was delighted. But I didn’t think I was going to be especially interested in her topic, which was described loosely as something like “fast food in the Black community.”
When we got there, we saw the book–Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America—which already sounded more interesting. When Dr. Chatelain took the stage, accompanied by her friend and interviewer Dr. Brandi Thompson Summers, we soon learned that she specifically didn’t frame the book around fast food, but around the history of McDonald’s in the Black communities. I haven’t yet read the book, but here’s some of what I took away. Most of the rest of this is me paraphrasing some high points from the evening:
As Naomi Klein examines in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, large corporations are extremely adept at making money out of social chaos. In the wake of Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, McDonald’s found its way into Black communities across America, offering franchise-owner opportunities to community members. While this was certainly a way out of poverty for some, Dr. Chatelain sees it also as a push away from beloved community, and toward individual entrepreneurship. One way you can tell that it worked is that McDonald’s franchise owners make up the single biggest group of Black millionaires in the United States.
Franchising is neither easy nor inexpensive. Franchise owners are responsible for most if not all of the costs of the franchise, plus fees to McDonald’s over and above the cost of the franchise itself. One audience member asked why these people didn’t quit and start their own franchising companies: because without the corporate name behind them, they can’t get the loans they need, or break the megacorp’s market share. As Dr. Chatelain said several times, McDonald’s is a real estate company–burgers and fries are a secondary income source. (Apparently, they are also the largest toy distributor in the world, because of Happy Meal prizes.) And — no surprise here — somehow when the Black franchise owners wanted to add stores in White neighborhoods, somehow none were available, or affordable, or whatever the excuse was.
It’s the same old story: in an attempt to milk everything it could out of the Black community, McDonald’s positioned itself as a friend to that community: a job creator, an opportunity-builder, with well-tuned advertising and some sensitivity to the “market segment,” if none to the beloved community.
In the 21st century, business is rougher and times are hard for franchisees, who have higher costs and fewer options. Dr. Chatelain was a powerful voice first for the ability of people (especially Black people) to take creative paths through hardship, and second for a return to valuing community, family, activism, and resilience at least as highly as monetary reward for a few: not transmuting civil rights into “silver rights.”