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Marcia Chatelain examines McDonald’s’ mixed impact on Black America
Judy Woodruff: Fast food is a staple of American culture, but, in recent decades, there has been a new focus on health and wage inequality.
Jeffrey Brown talks to author Marcia Chatelain about the complicated history of McDonald's in the Black community, how the fast food giant supported Black franchise owners, but was a trap for unhealthy diets and low wages.
It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Marcia Chatelain (Author, "Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America"): After high school, we'd go take the bus to downtown Chicago, and we would go to McDonald's.
Jeffrey Brown: In that sense, Marcia Chatelain is like so many of us, eating a zillion, and counting, burgers and all kinds of fast food at McDonald's and other chains.
But she's also an historian and Georgetown University professor who realized that the history of fast food is one way to explore important issues of race in America.
Marcia Chatelain: Everyone around the world can identify McDonald's. But what McDonald's means in Black communities is distinct and special, because it's a reflection of the various places where African Americans have been historically excluded.
Everyone eats McDonald's, but what McDonald's means to everyone, I think race really plays a difference in how that's interpreted.
Jeffrey Brown: It's the focus of her book "Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America," winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize in history.
Chatelain, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, is just the second Black woman to earn that honor.
And when you say fast food, McDonald's is the place.
Marcia Chatelain: McDonald's is the leader. McDonald's set the standard and expectation of what fast food could be.
How did McDonald's go from a place that really thought of itself as a suburban brand to...
Jeffrey Brown: Yes, largely white.
Marcia Chatelain: Largely white, to something that's so present in urban communities that are mostly African American and people of color. And there's actually a story there.
Jeffrey Brown: A story that began amid segregation, when McDonald's and other fast food chains complied with local laws that excluded Blacks from their restaurants.
The civil rights movement and subsequent Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended discrimination the grounds of race. And several years later, the first Black-owned McDonald's franchise was opened by Herman Petty in Chicago.
Marcia Chatelain: From the vantage point of 1967, when African Americans have only had the right to be in public accommodations for three years, opening a McDonald's in a Black neighborhood is a big deal.
Jeffrey Brown: McDonald's soon discovered a franchising gold mine.
Marcia Chatelain: McDonald's seized upon the moment, and what the reason was, if they put African American franchise owners in African American communities, they could not only respond to the call for Black ownership, but they could create a new consumer base by making these investments. And they were right.
Jeffrey Brown: Advertisements in the 1970s and '80s centered on family and community. The 1990s brought a focus on celebrities, sports, even cartoons. And commercials continue today for a contemporary market.
From the start, fast food was more than just food.
Marcia Chatelain: McDonald's was a presence in Black communities as people were organizing voting drives or thinking about ways to support the NAACP.
So, in many ways, McDonald's became part of the social fabric of Black life, even as they continued to promote products that were for everyone.
Jeffrey Brown: But, as Chatelain sees it, this empowerment came with a price. As more restaurants opened in Black and Latino communities, fast food became a common staple of diets, and consumers were often left with few healthy choices.
The focus with fast food on high rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes in the Black community, how much did that become tied to the emphasis of fast food?
Marcia Chatelain: The thing that I find most fascinating when we talk about health and race and fast food is that we have to take a holistic look at the quality of a person's life.
And if we don't understand that fast food is sometimes the most rational and smartest choice in someone's life, because they don't have the time or the energy for cooking, they're concerned about where their children are, and they're concerned about where their next meal is coming, then we're not doing the full work of food justice without thinking of all of the factors that constrain people's choices.
Actor: I'm part of the management team now, mama.
Actress: Oh, baby, I'm so proud of you.
Jeffrey Brown: McDonald's promoted itself as a source for jobs, but they were largely low-wage jobs.
That goes to Chatelain's larger critique of a strategy based on so-called Black capitalism, emphasizing private ownership and wealth over social and governmental programs.
And that becomes the tension of between the idea of Black capitalism and actual economic justice?
Marcia Chatelain: Exactly.
Black capitalism has long been a strategy to fill the gaps that are created when a racist society refuses to deliver to a group of people. And so, throughout the 19th and 20th century, African Americans have turned to Black capitalism to fill those critical gaps.
The fundamental problem is, is that business can never tend to people the way that communities can.
Jeffrey Brown: Chatelain sees the same thing happening again now. After protests against systemic racism in 2020, companies pledged support for Black businesses and suppliers. She says, great, but not enough.
Marcia Chatelain: The conclusion was more Black business, support Black creators. These things are incongruent.
And I think that it is because we return to this idea of business because the other work is just really hard to do. Black business didn't create these problems. Black business can't solve these problems.
Jeffrey Brown: How do you see your role as a historian? I'm struck listening to you about, every time you sort of...
Marcia Chatelain: My campaign speeches?
Jeffrey Brown: Well...
Jeffrey Brown: Well, a little bit, I mean, just in the sense of tying the history to a sense of social justice.
Marcia Chatelain: I tell my students this often: History is your greatest tool in problem-solving, that any time you find yourself stuck on how you're going to respond to a challenge, take a moment and look at the history.
And so I think my role as a historian in 2021 is to sound the alarms, as well as to remind people that the past is a source of great inspiration.
Jeffrey Brown: And the historian isn't done. Chatelain is now at work on a series of books capturing new perspectives and voices in the civil rights movement.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Washington, D.C.