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Transcript Of Interview With Marcia Chatelain

Marcia Chatelain received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to pursue a book project called From Sit-In to Drive-Thru: Black America in the Age of Fast Food. (photo: Georgetown University)

Marcia Chatelain is an Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at Georgetown University. She the author of South Side Girls: Growing up in the Great Migration (Duke University Press, 2015). Her forthcoming book From Sit-In to Drive-Thru: Black America in the Age of Fast Food is the topic of the conversation that follows.

Earth Eats Associate Producer, Alex Chambers interviewed Marcia Chatelain via skype, on June 26, 2018.

Alex Chambers: Your first book was about the Chicago end of the Great Migration through the lens of black girls. Was there some sort of progression that took you from that to this?

Marcia Chatelain: The kind of bridge I often talk about in terms of my two projects is that after I finished grad school and I was traveling between Chicago and Oklahoma City where I first started teaching and then Washington D.C. I would spend a lot of time in my hometown of Chicago. I always thought it was really fascinating the number of cultural institutions or various activities that I encountered that were underwritten by the local chapter of the National Black McDonald’s Operators Association. And I remember in high school the first time I ever read anything about the Great Migration was part of a history quiz bowl TV show that I was on through my school and I remember that it was the McDonald’s operators that had paid for the prizes for the competition. And so it always was this kind of issue in the back of my head in terms of what does it mean for an organization of black franchise operators to not only have so many footprints in a city but what does it mean for the relationship between communities of color and fast food when there are these franchise owners who are like local heroes or ambassadors or well-known entities.

Chambers: I never thought about the fact that the rise of fast food happened right at the same time as the Civil Rights Movement was taking off.

Chatelain: Right. One of the things I talk about in the book – the first chapter looks at doing a critical race history of fast food, and thinking about fast food and the housing market as being very similar, where some of the politics of redlining, there’s the federal infrastructure that’s allowing a lot of whites who are either leaving the military and using the GI bill for business loans or who are entering franchising and they’re able to be successful. So franchising grows up in the suburbs and becomes very popular in terms of highway transportation. And all of these structures are so bound by racial constructs of where funding is allocated and where it’s not, who has access to houses in the suburbs and cars to drive along the interstates, and then there’s this massive shift in the 1960s after 1968 where there are all these uprisings after the assassination of Martin Luther King, there are various hot summers, and one of the most consistent refrains, or rather responses, to uprisings is that poor communities need their own businesses, African Americans really should buy in to some of the black capitalism rhetoric that reemerges in this time and this is going to be the way forward: business. And the business that is ready to pounce is the franchise industry. When gas prices started to soar and when more and more suburban families were being discerning about how they spent money or whether they would want to fill up the car and expend gas to go to a fast food restaurant, the fast food industry saw the inner city as the place to grow, because it was a larger consumer base that walked to stores, and they also knew that putting in black franchise owners would ingratiate them to the community.

And one of the things I think is really important to note when we’re talking about these things is that, I don’t think anyone at that moment could anticipate the size and the consequences of the fast food industry, when they’re trying to bring it into communities in the 1960s and ‘70s. But by the 1980s it becomes very clear that there are some very complicated consequences as a result of this, but this relationship is at that point twenty years old, so you have this kind of brokering between major civil rights organizations, federal subsidies, and then a fast food industry that is just trying to gain as much ground as possible.

Chambers: Can you talk about those consequences that were unforeseen that are becoming more clear in the 80s?

Chatelain: When I’m looking at the early conversations about fast food, one of the critiques of the mainstream fast food industry is that, we really need to have our own black-owned franchises. So there are these attempts to create these companies that are considered authentically black franchises, and they’re not able to compete with the wealth and the size of some of these other major ones like your McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King.

But initially, the critique or the resistance to fast food was, “Will this really provide all of the things that it’s promising our community, in terms of wealth, and investment opportunities? And if it’s not, then we have to build our own fast food.” But there wasn’t a real concern about it. This idea of a McJob that is low wage, you don’t have the right to organize, it’s really physically taxing—that doesn’t enter the conversation again until the ‘80s. And so the critiques that we have today of the fast food industry, they are slow to develop and I think part of the reason why some of those critiques aren’t leveraged is because people think it’s not a bad idea. That it could actually be a legitimate source of economic development and renewal, because the industry in many ways was still growing as well.

Chambers: I’m curious, was there complicated conversation going on around, well, okay, we’ve got these McDonald’s available to us as a way of sparking the economic engine of the community, but it’s a franchise. It’s owned by a corporation.

Chatelain: In the early days of franchising, the post-1954 franchising moment that characterizes a lot of McDonald’s growth and its leadership under Ray Kroc, you knew who your franchise owner was because they were required to work in the store. So there was a way that there was a personalization of the experience of going to a McDonald’s or going to a Burger King or going to a Taco Bell that fades as the industry grows. But initially, people didn’t leverage those kinds of critiques about corporate power because there were many ways in which a franchise could still feel very familiar and connected to the community, if that makes sense. There are some questions about, “Is our money going out of our community?” But then there was also this sense that, if we go to a black-owned McDonald’s we’re still able to support our community in some ways, because a large part of the culture of franchising in local communities in these early days was about philanthropy, and a lot of being very present. Donating little league uniforms, and doing the college scholarships, and the African-American franchise owners were particularly attuned to their sense of responsibility and how people in the community would view them in terms of the resources they could bring. So, some of this corporate critique emerges, but not in the kind of robust ways that you would think in light of some of the other critiques that are being made about capitalism and systems.

There’s this anecdote in my book about how in April of 1969, Ralph Abernathy, who takes over for Martin Luther King at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he goes on a national tour to commemorate the first anniversary of King’s death. A few weeks before his tour, he gives this speech and says we don’t need black capitalism, we need black socialism, and everyone’s like what’s going on here? And shortly after he gives this speech he shows up at this McDonald’s in Chicago and he picks up a check from this black franchise owner. We could say that that act was rife with contradictions and questions, but I think in that particular world there’s a way that the economic possibilities of African Americans are so constrained that they have to kind of fit to get some very basic needs met, so there is no tension in the fact that Abernathy is calling for socialism and then his organization is very excited about franchise possibilities. So I write about critiques, but a lot of the critiques are about the extent to which McDonald’s, particularly, because it’s the first one that’s doing what they called minority franchising, the critique is to the extent that they’re going to be a citizen, not even a question about their citizenship in inner-city America.

Chambers: What do you mean that the critique is that they’re going to be a citizen? How involved the McDonald’s is going to be in the community?

Chatelain: Yes. Not if they should be here but how are you going to fit yourself into the things this community needs, and be part of it. There’s another anecdote about a Portland McDonald’s – Portland, Oregon – and the local Black Panther Party is accused of bombing them, and one of the reasons that they are allegedly a target is because they won’t donate to the breakfast program. And they won’t be a member of the community in the sense that this is what you’re supposed to do. If you’re going to be here and you’re going to profit from us, there’s got to be some exchange. And a lot of the strategy that the fast food industry has to figure out is how much do you concede to these demands. How much do you give in to these boycotts, because they know that they’re going to grow, and they know that the inner city is incredibly profitable and this is a market they want to be in, but they also are very concerned about setting precedent. And so there’s these different situations in which these protests, these boycotts of their stores emerge and the boycotts are about the terms in which they’re going to engage the community. Rarely are the protests about getting them actually out of the community.

Chambers: Right. Right. And to a certain degree those protests do make a difference. It seems like there is to a certain degree an effort by McDonald’s to start to invest, at a certain point, in black ownership.

Chatelain: Yeah, that’s the thing. It’s kind of the question of what’s the goal. If the goal is more franchise owners, yeah, you can get more franchise owners. If the goal is to make sure the franchisee is contributing. Absolutely. You can get that. I think that a lot of McDonald’s success is predicated on this idea of knowing when to get involved and when to step back and let franchise owners take the temperature of communities and figure out their relationships, but a lot of the philanthropy that’s associated with McDonald’s, the Ronald McDonald houses and all these different efforts, a lot of these are done by franchise owners and not necessarily the corporation. There’s a reason for that. I think they learned very quickly that franchising works because basically someone else carries the water, takes on all of the liability of the company for you. And part of what I chronicle in the book is that in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there are liabilities, quote unquote, of doing business in the inner city, there are the demands of the community, there are the expectations, and there are also some real structural issues in terms of the higher costs of doing business in communities that are poorer, and so all of those issues they are on the shoulder of the franchisee. A lot of what I talk about is this way that even within a system that allows for some African Americans to become wildly wealthy, and to have a lot of influence and power, there are still these questions about equity and fairness even within the system because African Americans are ultimately constrained. Whether they’re constrained in terms of their consumer choices or they’re constrained when they’re doing business, these are the constraints that everyone is trying to negotiate and maximize. If there’s a takeaway from my research it’s that, what do people do with constrained choices, they make it work.

Chambers: Did this change your own relationship to fast food?

Chatelain: Yeah, I grew up eating tons of fast food, and it’s that kind of things that’s so interesting. I don’t eat at much of it now, because I’m just older and my digestive systems don’t work like they used to, but I will never, I will never say I’m an anti-fast food person. I have concerns about some of the health consequences and I have concerns about the working conditions, but I’m also, increasingly, more sympathetic to the fact that the choices that people have are the choices they have, and that’s fine. And I think I was maybe a little more compelled by some of the conversations in the healthy food movement. But if we have a conversation about healthy foods, and they don’t involve conversations about capitalism, then I’m just not interested in them anymore. And I think it’s kind of changed the ways that I think about how we solve problems around health and nutrition, and it was important for me to write a book about the fast food industry that wasn’t about food. But about all of the other things that happen.

Chambers: Did this lead you to any new thoughts about current issues like the fight for fifteen?

Chatelain: I think that in terms of labor and thinking about the concentration of fast food in certain communities, and what a job means in some communities and what a job means in others, it just makes me think about all of the things, all of the arguments, and all of the affective work of fast food writing itself within a Civil Rights context, and how that can be a very effective tool in resisting the demands of workers. I think about that a lot. I was talking to a franchise owner and I visited one of his restaurants, and his manager says to me, “you know, I’m one of the few people who is going to employ someone with a criminal record.” And I give pp a second chance, and people saying like this is my ministry. We can write that off and say this person’s just saying this, but I think that some people really do mean this, and some people really do see the jobs that they provide as doing something really powerful. I think the problem is that for people who are in that orientation we have to help them understand what justice really looks like. It’s this thing I often say to my students. We always think that advertising works on everyone but us, because we’re smarter than the advertising, but when we think about how this industry has created wealth, that then helps pay for historically black colleges, and universities to have scholarships, and then provides opportunities for sports, and then says if you just keep working at this industry maybe one day you’ll make it like I will. Even in my most cynical moments, I get how people are really moved by that, and the question is for those of us who have a different vision of justice and opportunity, what are we going to provide that’s as compelling and as affective, so that people will believe us when we say that another world is possible.

Alex Chambers

Alex Chambers started baking bread in a rental house in college, and has been working to achieve that perfect loaf ever since. In the meantime, he’s taught cultural studies and creative writing on campuses and in prisons and community centers, and sourdough bread-baking at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard in Bloomington. He publishes poems and essays in various journals, when he’s not busy raising kids and roasting Brussels sprouts.

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