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Is fast food in black America a boon or a burden?

Michael A. Fletcher is a senior writer with ESPN’s the Undefeated and a former Washington Post staff writer.

Fast food is a staple not just of the typical American diet but also of contemporary American life. The federal government says that nearly 40 percent of us eat fast food on any given day. An estimated 1 in 8 Americans have worked at McDonald’s, including entertainer Jay Leno, Grammy-winning singers Shania Twain and Macy Gray, Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis, and Amazon CEO (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man.

Economically, fast food popularized the franchising model, which requires local small-business owners to shoulder much of the risk of running a restaurant while kicking an upfront fee and part of their revenue to a corporate parent. In exchange, the franchisee gets a known brand, a proven business plan, a high-powered marketing strategy and a chance to make some serious money.

One does not have to be a cynic to observe that the nation’s nearly quarter-million fast-food restaurants also provide a trove of low-wage jobs. Meanwhile, their most popular meal offerings tend to be laden with fat, sodium and empty calories, making them a major culprit in the U.S. obesity epidemic. The health and economic problems associated with fast food hit particularly hard in African American communities, where there tend to be fewer food options and less business activity than elsewhere.

All of this sets up an intriguing new book, “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America,” by Georgetown University professor Marcia Chatelain. She tells the story of the outsize impact fast food has had on African American communities through the story of McDonald’s, the Bigfoot of the industry. In short, her book promises to tell the story of how McDonald’s became black.

This might sound like a niche tale about food deserts and the prevalence of fast food in predominantly black neighborhoods. But it is actually a book of big, sweeping ideas that goes far in portraying fast-food restaurants as yet another burden on black America. Probably too far.

Chatelain spends a good chunk of the book linking the rise of McDonald’s to the struggle for black liberation that was making huge strides at the same time, beginning in the years just after World War II. But in view of the pervasive racism of that era — which locked African Americans out of many government benefits and public accommodations, as Chatelain recounts — the question of whether black patrons were welcome at this or that McDonald’s feels, at best, derivative. Make no mistake, such treatment is awful. But if Woolworth’s lunch counters were segregated in those days in, say, North Carolina, it is hardly surprising that the local McDonald’s was as well.

The book takes a more revelatory turn as it chronicles McDonald’s discovery of the money to be made in the African American market, and how the federal government helped the company and other chains get a firm hold on it.

McDonald’s roots extend to postwar suburban California, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that it got wise to the potential profits in black communities. The timing was not incidental. White and middle-class flight accelerated in the wake of the 1960s civil disturbances, which left places from Watts to Newark smoldering and all but economically abandoned. One idea embraced during the presidency of Richard Nixon was for the federal government to encourage a new wave of investment in the nation’s cities, and especially in poor, black neighborhoods.

As it turned out, fast-food restaurants were a big part of that. The first black-owned McDonald’s franchise opened in Chicago in 1968, and within three years, there were almost 50 across the country. Many of those black entrepreneurs were supported by federally subsidized financing.

Black ownership proved profitable for McDonald’s. It helped the company market itself as part of the community. Before long, the book notes, franchises in black neighborhoods were generating more revenue than those in white areas. This was the case even though some black owners complained about higher insurance and security costs as well as being consigned to old franchises in risky locations.

McDonald’s capitalized on the growth in black communities and the good public relations it brought the company. The black franchise owners helped the chain fend off critics who said it was simply draining money from the community. Eventually, McDonald’s hired a black-run advertising firm, Burrell Communications, whose marketing campaigns helped the restaurants become an accepted part of the landscape in black neighborhoods across the country.

McDonald’s was among the first corporations to use black models and actors in ads and television spots. There was a McDonald’s All-American high school basketball game and a McDonald’s All-American High School Band, and McDonald’s helped support a national double-Dutch league. There were ads and other marketing that touted the growing number of black McDonald’s executives. And there were boasts — which from all evidence were true — that the burger company was the nation’s largest employer of black youth.

The book’s examination of McDonald’s marketing efforts offers an illuminating look at the fraught interplay between corporations and civil rights leaders during that era. Not that long ago, African American leaders like the Rev. Jesse Jackson pushed corporations to give black business people, and by extension the black community, their “fair share.” Chatelain recounts some interesting local battles in cities from Cleveland to Portland over what obligations McDonald’s has to places where it does business.

Much of what McDonald’s did could be seen as giving back to communities that contributed to its success. Should a young person who gets a first job at McDonald’s be expected to build a career there? Isn’t a first job most valuable in teaching the habits and expectations of the workplace? Is it not a good thing that, by 2017, African Americans owned some 222 McDonald’s franchises? At the same time, couldn’t a profitable corporation like McDonald’s find a way to allow its franchises to pay a living wage to the many adults who make their careers there?

The book does not let McDonald’s off the hook so easily. And Chatelain reaches far to make her case. Near the book’s conclusion, she describes Ferguson, Mo., years after the disturbances that rocked that city after teenager Michael Brown was killed in a confrontation with a police officer in 2014. One business still thriving there is a black-owned McDonald’s.

“This book is concerned with the reasons that places like Ferguson are more likely to get a fast food restaurant rather than direct cash aid to the poor, oversight over the police department, or jobs that pay more than $8.60 an hour after an uprising,” she writes.

In her telling, fast-food corporations, shortsighted civil rights leaders, politicians, the government and unwitting black capitalists conspired to saturate black communities with fast food, imperiling black health.

That is certainly one take. Maybe the problem, though, is not the presence of too many fast-food restaurants in black communities but the absence of so many other businesses and institutions.


The Golden Arches in Black America

By Marcia Chatelain

Liveright. 324 pp. $28.95