Staff writer Grace Fitzgerald-Diaz attended the second lecture in the Race, Health, and Social Inequity series. 

Wednesday evening, I found myself voluntarily logging onto a zoom that I was not in any way required to attend (and actually enjoying it!) to listen to Marcia Chatelain talk about her new book Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America in an event hosted by the Lehman Center for American History.

Dr. Chatelain started off by briefly going over the content of the book, something that was very helpful to me, as I hadn’t read it. However, as she was doing this, she also explained why she chose to explore certain topics, thus also keeping the attention of those who had already read the book.

Dr. Chatelain explained that what is often missing from the story of the McDonald’s empire rising is the conditions that allowed it to grow: it grew on the back of the dispossessed. 

It was only in 1968 that McDonald’s began to allow Black franchise owners. After MLK’s assassination, many white franchise owners relocated out of Black neighborhoods, leaving a void that needed to be filled. The first group of Black franchise owners found they were able to consolidate their authority due to the fact that they were making significant amounts of money.

However, the chain’s presence began to be challenged. Dr. Chatelain noted that these early critiques were more related to the idea that businesses in Black neighborhoods should benefit Black people. Critiques rooted in health concerns didn’t start to emerge until the late 80s and early 90s, as “before this, the discussion was more about what McDonald’s could do for the Black community.”

After this, the discussion shifted into a Q&A format, moderated by Samuel Roberts, whose enthusiasm about the book was infectious.

I found the most interesting part of the discussion Dr. Chatelain’s responses relating to the idea of Black capitalism. She noted that during the Civil Rights Movement, there was (and continues to be) an idea that Black capitalism “is how we grow up.” She touched on the fact that there’s an idea that Black people making money is a solution to the problem of racial justice, and once that’s happening there is nothing more that needs to be addressed.

Dr. Chatelain also illuminated some of the flaws with this way of thinking. For example, she noted, it has often been more profitable to be a franchise owner for a fast food restaurant than to open a grocery store. So in a world where people think that what they should do is make the most money possible, a person would choose in every scenario to open a fast food franchise. This, however, has contributed to the development of the problem of food deserts, areas where it is very difficult to buy high quality food.

I also found her response to a question about climate change, environmental justice, and food justice very interesting. Though she noted that she wished she had had the dexterity to address those issues in the book, she provided a thoughtful response on exactly what she wished she had written (issues surrounding supply chain and the expansion of the menu.)

Dr. Chatelain was clear, though, that at no point was McDonald’s, or any other corporation, trying to be progressive or to make a social statement: they were, and are, trying to maximize their profits, near the end saying “the fantasy of the kind slave owner is now grafted onto the good company.”