Franchises and Black Capitalism

Ideas and Issues

July 11, 2021

Pearl River    

A book that came my way, courtesy of Father’s Day, thank you my loves, turned out to be surprisingly interesting.  Marcia Chatelain, a history professor at Georgetown, had written Franchise:  The Golden Arches in Black America.  I approached the book with some trepidation, fearful that this was going to be a rehab job on the questionable contribution of fast food, on almost every level, in lower income and minority communities.  I’m sure that there are books like that, god knows, but that’s not what Professor Chatelain wrought from deep research of franchising history and many of the disputes that marked the way.  When she quotes, SCLC leader, Ralph Abernathy, favorably, saying that he “doesn’t believe in black capitalism,” but “believes in black socialism,” you have sense that this won’t be a McDonalds’ puff piece.

She doesn’t pull any punches.  She has a soft spot for the McDonald’s brothers and their original stores in California, but she can’t stop taking shots at Ray Kroc as an interloper, fast-dealer, racist, and hyper-conservative.   She admires some of the Black pioneers, especially the ones with chutzpah, but disdains others as stone cold hustlers.

Mainly, Chatelain excavates the pretense of corporate beneficence in expanding into Black America, by charting what McDonalds and other franchisers were forced to learn from flareups in Philadelphia and Cleveland, where they were met with boycotts and organized demands and opposition.  Underneath the rationalizations and promotions, she finds slow walking corporate managers and ownership that was forced to adapt largely as white franchise holders abandoned the so-called “ghetto” stores and black entrepreneurs proved that they could make some of these stores the most profitable in the chain.  Action forced reaction from the franchises that put money on the table and altered ownership.

She credits Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket, the NAACP, and others for making this happen in Chicago, Los Angeles, and nationally, but does so with a number of caveats.  There’s a painful exposition of President Clinton’s efforts to paper over eviscerating public welfare with thinly funded claims of substituting investment in Black businessmen as job providers and subsidizing corporate franchisers claims of job creation, even when it wasn’t sustainable.  Statistics comparing the food offerings in lower income, minority areas at more than half, while only 14% might come from franchises in upper income areas, makes her point that food deserts were actually a greenlining gone wrong with a racialized result.

Reading about these fights and what passed for victories makes it difficult to dispute Chatelain’s underlying conclusions that many of these very hard, drawn out battles were based on misplaced demands that settled for too little.  Some individuals profited, while communities that fought the good fight ended up not really much better for them.  It’s impossible to argue with her conclusion, as she sums up, that “In matters of race and capitalism, [Ella] Baker argued, the struggle is ‘something much bigger than a hamburger.’”