A Not So Happy Meal: McDonald's Can't Fix America's Race Problem (ep. 116)

August 26, 2020
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The golden arches. The happy meal. These are phrases that immediately mean something to most Americans. In fact, with more than 36,000 restaurants in 100 countries, McDonald's may well be one of the most recognizable brands in the world. But today, we're focusing on a much lesser known side of the fast food giant, looking at McDonald's role in Black America.

Joining us to talk about how the struggle for civil rights and the expansion of the fast-food industry have shaped each other is Dr. Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University and the author of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America and Fran Marion, McDonald's franchise worker and organizer with Fight for 15.

A BIG ANNOUNCEMENT! Starting on September 15th, we’re launching a special 2020 voting series called At the Polls. This will be in addition to our normal At Liberty episodes. Each week, we’re answering a new question about voting rights in the lead up to the presidential election. If you have a question you’d like us to answer, call us and leave a message at 212-549-2558. Or, email us podcast@aclu.org. We look forward to hearing from you.

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MOLLY KAPLAN
From the ACLU, this is At Liberty. I’m Molly Kaplan, your host for this episode.

The golden arches. The happy meal. These are phrases that immediately mean something to most Americans. In fact, with more than 36,000 restaurants in 100 countries, McDonald's may well be one of the most recognizable brands in the world. But today, we're focusing on a much lesser known side of the fast food giant: looking at McDonald's role in Black America.

Joining us to talk about how the struggle for civil rights and the expansion of the fast food industry have shaped each other is Dr. Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University and the author of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America.

Welcome to the podcast Marcia.

MARCIA CHATELAIN
Thank you so much, Molly.

MOLLY
[00:00:54] I wanted to start with why McDonald's? You're a professor of history and African-American studies. What was the draw of McDonald's both personally and as an historian?

MARCIA
Well growing up in the 1980s McDonald's was everywhere that I was. And for me as a historian, I really like to help people retrain their focus on everyday experiences and everyday institutions. And one of the reasons why I was so drawn to McDonald's is because while there's been a larger conversation over the past two decades about McDonald's role in nutrition and health disparities among communities of color as well as labor issues, very few people have taken a step back to think about the history of how we got here. There's nothing natural about people eating fast food. The process of developing a market of particularly African-American fast food buyers has a history and has a story. And I'm a big believer that once we expand our frame to understand the history, we get better at fighting for the issues that are important to us.

MOLLY
[00:02:02] And you actually have an interesting connection to McDonald's that goes back even earlier to a time when you were a kid and you had won a contest. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Because it's interesting to incorporate that into your frame as a historian.

MARCIA
Right. So growing up, I was from a very kind of modest earning working class family. And a lot of our experiences were as a result of special programs or scholarships. And when I was in high school, I was introduced to the history of the African-American Great Migration through a quiz bowl show that was partially sponsored by African-American McDonald's franchise owners. And I always thought about that. Years later, when I went on to write a book about the Great Migration, when I was thinking about other projects in African-American history, I thought it was so interesting that my introduction to this field wasn't in school, but through a contest that McDonald's was a part of. And it made me think a lot about experiences over the years of meeting other Black people who grew up in cities who talk about the ways that Black McDonald's owners were such a part of the cultural and social and economic life of their communities. And it made me realize that even though McDonald's is a fixture in so many places, it means so many different things because of race and because of class.

MOLLY
[00:03:28] And a lot of the owners were the owners of franchises. And I'm not sure that everybody is aware of the percentage of McDonald's restaurants that are franchises or even how the franchise system works. Before we go further, can you describe how that structure functions and sort of the pitfalls and the advantages?

MARCIA
[00:03:26] Yes. So franchising is something that is a really curious relationship. And I describe it in the book as, it's like if a parent sets all the rules in a household but all the kids earn the money. And it's this idea that there is an authority, the franchise company, that sets all the rules and expectations, so they determine that red and yellow will be the colors of McDonald's. They determine what's on the menu. They set a lot of the expectations on how these businesses operate. And then the franchise owners go in and do the actual work.

And in many ways, franchising is so quintessentially American because it's this promise that if you follow all the rules, you will make lots of money. But the reality of franchising is that regardless of the brand or the company, whether it's McDonald's or Chick Fil-a or Hilton Hotels, franchising is about assuming a lot of liability, a lot of risks, and a lot of responsibilities of operating a business.

MOLLY
[00:04:45] And what percentage of McDonald's restaurants do you think are franchisees?

MARCIA
So more than 90 percent of McDonald's restaurants are franchised. And the reason why this is so important for a lot of the issues that come up with McDonald's is that the majority of its business is owned and operated by third parties. And so those individuals are the ones who have to wrangle the details of running a McDonald's. So after they collect all their profits, they owe McDonald’s a portion of it for rent, for the right to franchise the McDonald's. They have to pay into advertising funds so that McDonald's commercials can be on television and on the Internet and on radio stations. And so they pay a lot of fees. And the promise of franchising and the hope of franchising is that you make so much money that after you fulfill your responsibilities to McDonald's corporate, you have a lot of profits to enjoy.

MOLLY
[00:05:44] Where did it begin that Black people became more involved in the franchise business? What is the start of that?

MARCIA
So it all starts in 1968 and it's such a pivotal moment for so many issues in the United States. But after Martin Luther King's assassination in Memphis, the McDonald's corporation, alongside a lot of corporations, started to think about their engagement with black communities. Part of the issue was that white franchise owners who were operating McDonald's restaurants in Black neighborhoods or communities that had a major racial demographic shift, they wanted out.

[00:06:20] They thought that if they stayed in these communities, they would be the target of animus and that if there was another uprising like the ones that followed King's assassination, they wouldn't survive. And so McDonald's said, OK, if you want to vacate your stores and move to the suburbs, we will find an African-American business owner to fill your space. And as I was writing my book, there were these eerie comparisons between how the franchise community reacts to racial diversity and the way that housing and real estate is also very much embedded in race and discrimination. So a lot of African-Americans wanted to get into franchising, but they couldn't get the capital from banks because of discriminatory lending. They were sometimes bullied and pressured out of predominantly white markets. So you see the kind of parallels.

But what also fueled this transition was that the federal government under Richard Nixon was supporting this idea of Black capitalism. And it was this way that the Nixon administration could pretend that they actually cared about Black people by supporting the opening of Black businesses. And the franchises were right there. And the last part of this story was very much about the civil rights establishment. Major civil rights organizations also started to look at business as a possible solution to really kind of address the deep racial inequalities in the country.

MOLLY
[00:07:46] And what were some of the pitfalls of this endorsement, because it seems on the face like a really great idea. Everybody wins. You have Black business leaders profiting from a huge private corporation. And Black leaders certainly represented in a Black community. What's not to love?

MARCIA
Oh, it just gets so complicated so fast. So I'm a big believer that the private sector can never answer the problems of the public good. And so the opening of Black businesses did have some positive impacts. They did bring jobs to some communities. They were able to build wealth in a way that has continued to endow and sustain Black institutions. Black McDonald's franchise owners are incredible supporters of historically Black colleges and universities. They helped underwrite a lot of the cultural events that I enjoyed as a kid.

[00:08:29] And so there are a lot of things to point to, to say, OK, this relationship did some good things. And at the same time, we also know that the condition of fast food jobs does not allow for economic security or mobility. We also know that the quality of the food that is served at McDonald's has a huge health impact on communities that are most vulnerable to diet based diseases. But we also know that corporations are never really in the business of helping people, no matter what they say.

And so, as this strategy of opening up franchises continued to be promoted as the way to address the problems that have nothing to do with business like police brutality and housing discrimination and the lack of resource schools, there is this like weird kind of like jumbling of like what exactly we're talking about. And I think recently, with the protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we see the same kind of weird nonsense. So people are upset because they're being terrorized in their communities and they don't feel safe. And then the answer is like a business economic development program.

MOLLY
[00:09:51] And it's interesting, you you brought up present day. I'm curious how you're in the middle of a global pandemic. How has the pandemic and the moment we're living in now exposed the inequities within franchises in relationship to the headquarters of McDonald's?

MARCIA
All of these things are converging in this incredible moment. And, you know, a lot of people want to compare this moment to ’68. And I think there are some apt comparisons. But this is what I think is particularly illustrative about this moment.

[00:10:18] So we have this incredible global pandemic that is endangering the lives of people. And then we have this industry, fast food, that's kind of designed to meet the challenge of this movement because you can deliver hot food fast. You can have kind of that like contactless kind of feel that sit down restaurants don't. You have an incredible workforce that is so talented that can actually do it with very little kind of change. And you have the problem where that same workforce is also among the vulnerable populations to COVID. And they're not organized and they don't have access to adequate health care. And so the very same people who are allowing, you know, the country to stay moving are the same people who are vulnerable to the forces that has made everything slow down. And so it's so poignant to see the ways that we have a rhetoric of celebrating our frontline workers and then treating them so poorly. And then you have another major moment of racial reckoning where corporations are trying to be on the right side of history. And you have McDonald's, you know, putting on Twitter “Black Lives Matter.” And it it feels like a strange plot point in a satire.

MOLLY
[00:11:35] Well, also the CEO came out and said we will offer paid sick leave. We will do all these things to protect our workers—

MARCIA
—At our company owned stores, at our company owned stores, right.

MOLLY
Which I think most people probably wouldn't realize that that footnote is a huge footnote.

MARCIA
It's humongous. Yes. And also, unless you're obsessed with fast food like I am, knowing the distinctions about franchising is so important in being able to offer a critical response to when corporations are like, OK, we're going to do the right thing by our workers. But then you realize that they don't take ownership of that workforce. And this is where, you know, the politics become really important because in the previous administration, the National Labor Relations Board was like, you know what? This idea that franchise companies like McDonald's or Burger King, they used to say, well, we can't deal with worker issues and we can't really address the desire for unionization or Fight for 15, because those aren't our employees. Those are our franchisees employees. And then this current administration, they pulled that back and said, actually, yeah, you don't have joint employer status. And so I think that it's so important for people to just kind of push and say, OK. So what does paid sick leave mean for a McDonald's employee? It means a very small portion of the people who are working inside of restaurants.

MOLLY
[00:12:58] And actually to that end, we were actually able to speak with a current McDonald's franchise worker out of Kansas City, Missouri, her name is Fran Marion. She had a message both for franchise owners and for McDonald’s corporate.

FRAN MARION
I have been working for McDonald's on and off for over two decades. We are the ones that are generating you these billions of dollars day in and day out. And especially during this pandemic, we are not only putting ourselves at risk, being on frontlines. We're also putting our families at risk, day in and day out. And we just want what's due right to us as humans.

[00:13:36] We want a living wage. We would like healthcare. We are humans, and without us you'd be gone through the same struggles that we're going through. Without us, you'd be figuring out how to pay your light bill, your gas bill, your water bill, how to feed your kids. Those are our everyday struggles that we go through every day. But if I had a living wage, I'd be able to better budget things.

You know, that is that McDonald's corporate, franchise owners, almost anybody, you're forgetting that we are human beings. We are not machines. All you think I was is a number. Oh OK? She quit. I’m gonna replace her. That's not the way we roll. That is not fair. That is not how life should be.

MOLLY
Marcia, is Fran's story surprising to you at all?

MARCIA
[00:14:22] Unfortunately, it's not. This is so upsetting to me because a lot of the research in my book from the 60s and 70s is this idea that if there are more African-Americans in the position to own franchises, then it's good for all Black people. And I think that this is like the fundamental problem in the ways that we think about racial justice as routes to opportunity. So you see these companies saying, OK, we're going to take diversity seriously. We'll have more Black accountants and Black attorneys and Black franchise owners, people who are often of privileged background and quite wealthy. But these are industries that only succeed in the exploitation of Black workers and working people and poor people. And so it becomes really complicated because on one hand, these opportunities are valuable to a degree. But what they ultimately show is that this is not a strategy for justice. This is a strategy for business. And I don't think they're compatible.

And, you know, with the pandemic, what we've also seen is that it's not just workers who don't have access to paid sick leave or child care or the benefits. You need to be a healthy worker. They also don't have access to supplies. There was a walkout in Oakland over PPE. And, you know, workers were given dog diapers and coffee filters in order to protect themselves while they're making food at McDonald's, like it’s bananas.

[00:15:49] And so I think that these stories are so powerful because the only thing I think is going to actually upend this is more regulation on business. And if we have a system in which your ability to get good health care is tethered to whether or not you're employed, we're going to continue to see these problems.

MOLLY
I'm curious, too, in talking about the pandemic and also the responses and calls for justice in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many more. Is there a role for corporate America that would actually be meaningful and connected to that, how do we avoid solutions that, similar to McDonald's in 1968, just don't fully meet the needs of Black Americans? You know, how can we learn from this? Where is a space that can be helpful?

MARCIA
[00:16:34] I think the ultimate answer is just like pay your freakin taxes. Like we actually have the solution is that when there is a lot of wealth generated, you pay into the public good so everyone can get the things that they need. You know, these corporations spend so much time and energy and money like crafting these ways to respond to the moment. I mean, I think the thing that really strikes me as someone who writes about fast food and thinks about it all the time, is that the more and more corporate entities are in our schools, in our hospitals, on our TV sets, like we forget that as people we have power and we have collective energy to actually solve problems. And that usually our ideas are better than any kind of corporate giant.

And so when we can see that we need corporations to set up programs or to pay for textbooks or to be kind enough to offer health care, then we forget that we actually have a robust public system that if we allocate our resources wisely, we wouldn't have to stress out about these things. Like we live in a country with no social safety net. And we live in a place in which, you know, every day too many people have to determine their fate based on how lucky they were at a particular moment. Like this is intolerable.

[00:17:55] And it's amazing, all of these CEOs who are like, I want to really think about racial justice. I'm like, you know what? You don't even have to take a class or go to a workshop, and then make sure that you don't run businesses that are hyper dependent on policing, like don't take subsidies to bring in electricity and water so that you can run your businesses. Like stop being so awful. And we wouldn't have these problems. But again, we find ourselves in a cycle where the response is about rehabilitating images rather than actually delivering racial justice.

MOLLY
[00:18:27] You know, another big piece of this is the food side. It would be impossible to talk about McDonald's and not bring up the food, and the food part of it is meaningful because in a lot of the places we're talking about in communities don't have access to supermarkets or farmer's markets, fresh produce. How does McDonalds fail to address the economics of food and maybe even exacerbate them?

MARCIA
[00:18:53] McDonald's exacerbates a problem that I think is really the failure of civil society to provide for people. And so it's the subsidies that go to fast food versus the subsidies that could go to groceries. It's the fact that we have communities, that people have different solutions to feed themselves, but they may not have a good source of electricity because they can't afford the utility or they don't have the ability to cook fresh food because of the high price of gas. I think once we change that, then we can kind of delve into the like, please eat more kale and fewer French fries.

MOLLY
Right. So the solution isn’t necessarily that McDonald's offers a kale happy meal, but that we all have more opportunities around McDonald's so that we're not taking away that choice. We're adding to the choice.

MARCIA
[00:19:43] If I have to concede that burgers are delicious and people will want to buy a burger somewhere, I'm totally fine with that. What I don't want is the profits from that burger restaurant to determine if a historically Black college or university gets a library fund. Right. And I don't want that location to be the only first job available to teenagers or the only person or the only place, rather, that will employ a person who has you know, a criminal record. I don't want that to be the place where, like, senior citizens have to meet and hang out, not because they want to, but because there's nowhere else for them to go. And so I think that, you know, it's it's complicated because McDonald's has been the place for a lot of awesome memories for me. I mean, I'm not so ridiculous as to not realize why fast food is appealing and why the marketing is so seductive. You know, I've spent the better part of, you know, five or six years just watching McDonald's commercials and crying endlessly, because that's my entire childhood.

MOLLY
Can we pause on some of these commercials, by the way, because they are exceptional. And it really brings up a question about how Black celebrity sort of worked with McDonald's and how McDonald's was both leveraging, I think, Black culture. But then vice versa. There was an interest in it. Can you maybe just give us a highlight of one of your favorite commercials that sort of echoes this? And what's interesting about that?

MARCIA
[00:21:10] So growing up in the 80s and 90s, I grew up in the age of the Calvin ad. And so Calvin was a campaign that started, I believe, in 1990 to try to make McDonald's cool. But what they were actually communicating was McDonald's was cool, not only to work at, but to also like deal with the predatory nature of Black teenagers. And then you’re like, oh my God, this is so problematic. But the idea was a multi commercial story about the ability for a young man to get off the streets, work at a McDonald's, be cool, earn money, be the envy of his friends and the pride of his community. I think really encapsulates what a lot of Black popular culture was trying to do in terms of representation. They were trying to show kind of aspiration and the desire to make it in a kind of post 1968 world. And for people like me who grew up with The Cosby Show, like, oof, you know, this was very cool, because I think sometimes it's hard for me to communicate just what a big deal it was to see Black people on television, even if it was a McDonald's commercial.

MOLLY
Yeah, and it's Black people in their communities on their terms—

MARCIA
—In their context.

MOLLY
Talking to one another like it wasn't the sort of whitewashing. It felt organic in some ways.

MARCIA
[00:22:34] And that's the thing that I also was like really adamant about putting in the book. Like, this is not a McDonald's takedown book. This is a book about why capitalism is so hard to quit and what it does to us. But one of the things I really wanted to acknowledge was the fact that McDonald's created a Black creative machine that was so foundational not just for consumers, but for the industries where it intersected, like the fact that African-American advertising and market research firms were a possibility.
MOLLY
Yeah. And getting back to something you said earlier, all these franchises had to pay for that. They weren't choosing that advertising. You know, like it was something that was getting funneled up. And ultimately, the profits at the end of the day are largely shared by headquarters who whose interests are not serving these communities.

MARCIA
[00:23:23] Right. And there's a culture of philanthropy that also emerges out of McDonald's. And that was also led by a lot of African-American franchise owners who I think are incredibly complicated people because they are among a very small group of people who've actually had a chance to build wealth in the system. And at the same time, they are also sometimes at the margins of this community of wealthy people.

MOLLY
Right. And that no sector of American culture can get away from the larger structures.

McDonald's has been in the news lately and also of interest to the ACLU for some of its toxic culture reported, either, you know, McDonald's recently sued its former CEO for hiding information during an investigation into his sexual harassment of an employee. We, the ACLU, and some of our partners filed 30 federal complaints against McDonald's since last May, challenging the company's toxic culture and that includes sexual harassment across all levels of the organization. I'm wondering if everything we've discussed so far connects to some of that toxic culture.

MARCIA
[00:24:28] Yeah, I mean, I think that there's something about having people prepare so much food so quickly that also revolves around a kind of level of dehumanization. That part of what made McDonald's so distinguishable from other fast food brands is that very early on they brought this idea of Fordism or the automation of the creation of a product and efficiency at the heart of what they did. And so it created a cultural expectation that you get food really, really fast. And I am guilty of this. I'm such an American when I travel abroad and someone wants to, like, prepare me a meal at a very beautiful pace. And I'm like, oh, my God, why is my food not here. Or I expect someone to throw a bill in my face at a restaurant like the second I finished my dessert.

But this idea that we have an expectation because we are in a cultural context where we have to be efficient because there is no safety net. We can't get sick. We can't lose money. We can't lose our jobs. And so it it kind of mirrors a cultural context where if you expect people to perform at that level of speed each and every day and you don't pay them and you don't make sure they're taken care of when they're sick. The toxicity is kind of built within the system.

You know, the reason why there's sexual harassment is because you have a feminized service industry that is always kind of disrespecting women. The reason why you have racism in the system is that you have this kind of two tiered system of the management class and then the worker class. And so I think that it's so important it's so important that we have these mechanisms in which workers can tell us what is happening to them.

MOLLY
[00:26:11] You know, one thing I'm curious about is your book has been in the world for a little while now. And I'm curious if you've gotten any feedback from anyone who's within the sphere of people you've written about. So like workers, franchise owners, HQ, McDonald's. Has anybody reported back to you that they've read it, that it changed anything, that it was helpful?

MARCIA
So, unfortunately, McDonald's issued a statement in response to my book when asked, they suggested it was an inaccurate portrayal of their commitment to diversity. And I understand why they are maybe unhappy with some of my analysis, although I think it was pretty fair and nuanced. But there's nothing inaccurate about my book. So, but strangely, shortly after Chris Kim Sanski, the new CEO of McDonald's, moved into his office. There was a copy of my book on his bookshelf, and he Instagrammed the picture. So I think that he has read Franchise and I hope that he reads it again and is so inspired by the analysis of racial capitalism that he decides to change all of the rules of franchise management and really make a commitment to making a difference.

[00:27:27] If he really wants to make a splash as CEO of McDonald's, he'd be like, you know what we're gonna do? We're going to like up wages and we're going to hold franchise owners accountable if they abuse our workers. And you know what? Unions for everybody. Like how amazing would that be? Because I think that if McDonald's, considering its size, went in that direction, I think the other fast food companies would be forced to do the same.

MOLLY
Marcia, thank you so much for joining us today.

MARCIA
Thank you for having me.

MOLLY
Thanks so much for listening. We’ve got some exciting news here at At Liberty. Starting on September 15th, we’re launching a special 2020 voting series called At the Polls. This will be in addition to our normal At Liberty episodes. Each week, we’re answering a new question about voting rights in the lead up to the presidential election. If you have a question you’d like us to answer, call us and leave a message at 212-549-2558. That’s 212-549-2558. Or, email: podcast@aclu.org, that’s podcast@aclu.org. We so look forward to hearing from you. And until next time, stay strong.

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