Review – Chatelain, “Golden Arches”

Marcia Chatelain, “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America” (2020) (read aloud by Machelle Williams) – This is a fucker of a sad story. If there’s one thing I’m not going to moralize about, it’s eating “bad” food. I actually think fast food is a good concept with godawful externalities in terms of ecological damage, labor practices, and health. I don’t think whatever kind of vaguely-elven/hobbit-ish “slow food” vision some people have for a better food world should be the only one available in a better future (and how many farm-to-table, slow food type restaurants also have terrible labor practices?). And I think people have the right not to optimize for physical or mental health- they have the right to pursue experiences that might harm them, up to and including eating unhealthy food.

People have the right to eat unhealthy food- but they also have the right to healthy, wholesome food, and McDonalds, and other fast food companies, are what many black communities in this country have instead of that. Fast food is so ubiquitous it can fool us into thinking it’s always been there- I’ve lost count of the number of medieval fantasy novels I’ve read where the author treats eating at a roadside inn as structurally similar to Denny’s, if not quite up to McDonald’s speed and efficiency. The most relevant differences between the fast food giants that grew to prominence in the US after WWII and other eateries were that fast food chains were labor-intensive, highly standardized enterprises, run by out-of-town corporate giants but dependent on local buy-in, from customers, workers, and key to the growth of McDonald’s and other chains, franchisees. 

Drop something like that in the cities that were soon to roil and burn with discontent and there was bound to be an interesting situation. Black communities had a bifurcated response to McDonald’s at first. Most McDonald’s franchises, early on, went into suburbs and other areas black people often didn’t or couldn’t go. McDonald’s obeyed the usual segregation customs, and at least once dozens of sit-in participants were trapped and brutalized in a southern McDonald’s. But, and this is a dynamic that historians of consumer capitalism have identified elsewhere, there was one special appeal that chains like McDonald’s had for black customers: unless something went wrong, culpably wrong, with the process, when you ordered something at McDonald’s, you got the same thing, at the same price, everyone else got. This is a similar logic to why black customers were early adopters of packaged food and chain supermarkets- you weren’t going to get cheated buying a box of corn flakes like you would be by a racist small shop owner who has to weigh you out your flour or whatever. 

Moreover, once McDonald’s got somewhat less racist, both black entrepreneurs and the Chicago-based company saw another appealing facet to establishing the chain in black communities. It did not take that much money, in the grand scheme of things, to buy a McDonald’s franchise, and the company would help you set up, without banks or whoever else involved. McDonald’s quickly noticed that franchises with black owners often did better in black neighborhoods than if they were owned by white people. Moreover, in the wake of the ideological conflicts within the black freedom struggle and the exhausting round of riots, assassinations, and recrimination that happened around the same time, McDonald’s lucked into an ideological fad- black capitalism was, for a little while, on everyone’s lips, even people like Ishmael Reed, who should have known better. 

Richard Nixon knew what he was doing when he promoted black capitalism as a solution to black America’s woes, even as the fulfillment of “black power.” It’s a placeholder idea, a vacuous non-concept that can still effectively stand in for where an idea might otherwise be, if no one kicks the tires (not unlike a McDonald’s meal is a placeholder for something better, come to that). Nobody — not Nixon, not such movement veterans as Floyd McKissick who embraced the concept — articulated how, exactly, you were going to get black capitalism without a critical mass of capital in black hands, without some kind of massive redistribution program. That wasn’t on the table. What was on the table was a certain amount of grant money, much of which went to businesses who could prove they were promoting black business ownership and job growth. In a period of deindustrialization, McDonald’s, with its franchise model (you’re hardly going to franchise steel manufacturing plants), was poised to take advantage, massively increasing its footprint in black America and posing as a community investor.

McDonald’s proved skillful at playing the cultural games that grew in importance in the late twentieth century as the possibilities for material change receded. In this, an earlier investment paid off- those black franchisees, some of whom moved into senior corporate positions, proved vital to McDonald’s efforts to adapt. This involved both learning marketing targeted at black people and figuring out how to defuse challenges from local community organizations who either wanted a bigger slice of the profits McDonald’s was extracting or else keep the company out in general. McDonald’s was also helped by the times- it “fit right in there,” as Sam Elliott put it in another nineties classic, The Big Lebowski. Vague aspirationalism, cheap products produced by increasingly globalized supply chains and taylorized workforces from the farm to the cash register, relying on people not to look too close… the eighties and nineties, despite some academic trends, poor times for close criticism.

Really, it was just sad to watch these communities, with leaders who had struggled so hard and done so much during the course of the black freedom struggle, reduced to slinging slogans about burger restaurants, whether they’re good or bad or whatever. It’s sad to see the hopes people invested in black franchising, and not just McDonald’s either- a chain named after Chicken George, from “Roots,” was in fact black owned and was doing pretty good… before it got poleaxed by market changes. That’s what happened to the numerous chains opened up by black celebrities during the black capitalism fad, too, when they weren’t just vaporware to begin with. That’s what the kind of deep fundament of capital that established — read, white — firms have, their relationships across the web of capitalism from banks to suppliers to media, can get you. McDonald’s could afford to screw up everything from its initial introduction of chicken sandwiches to avoiding lawsuits for discrimination, because they’re established and backed by other established players. None of these black enterprises had that. Black capitalism can’t replace black power because you need power to do capitalism. 

And so, McDonald’s grew omnipresent in black America. As black communities continued their slide into immiseration, fast food places are often the only places to affordably feed a family with the kind of time people scrambling to make a living have, so the worse things got, the more McDonald’s was in demand. A franchisee conman who got his start using black pride sloganeering to boost his McDonald’s franchises stood behind Bill Clinton as he signed the welfare reform bill, further cheapening McDonald’s labor pool and encouraging people to spend their dwindling food budget there, in case the ironies involved were too subtle. 

It’s sad, but also hard to blame the individual black people involved. Capitalism in general, and consumer companies like McDonald’s in particular, does everything it can to obscure what actually makes the machine go, to impersonate natural forces or acts of god. And anyone who knows anything about the struggles of the sixties knows the profound exhaustion that came after a decade of fighting seemed to fall short of tangible goals. You can’t blame drowning people for scrabbling at any kind of driftwood they can lay their hands on. And it’s not like the opposition — Chatelain begins the book with the kind of sneering, “junk food” criticism of fast food that misses a lot of the point — was great, either, immersed in whatever spell seemed to stop Americans, especially but not exclusively white ones. from taking anything structural into account until, maybe, 2010 or so in their understandings of the world. All in all, a discouraging picture, well painted. ****’

Review – Chatelain, “Golden Arches”

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