An exploration of the complicated role of fast-food restaurants in low-income black urban neighborhoods, with an emphasis on McDonald’s.
Though most of the book covers the 20th century, Chatelain (History and African American Studies/Georgetown Univ.; South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration, 2015) begins in August 2014, when a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, killed Michael Brown. The resulting unrest—some of it violent, some peaceful, all of it racially charged—took place in and around a McDonald’s location owned by a black businessman. “The Florissant Avenue McDonald’s,” writes the author, “was both an escape from the uprising and one of its targets.” Chatelain characterizes her book, in part, as “the story of how McDonald’s became black.” She makes a convincing case that racial tension, the civil rights movement, and fast food all combined to change the dynamic of mostly black communities ignored by white power structures. Fast food is generally unhealthy and can certainly lead to obesity. Chatelain realizes that low-income blacks are regularly demonized by whites for making poor nutritional choices. However, as she clearly explains, those apparent “choices” are not often real choices because residents lack access to supermarkets stocking healthy food offerings or eateries offering healthy, affordable menu items. “Today, fast-food restaurants are hyperconcentrated in the places that are the poorest and most racially segregated.” As McDonald’s became the dominant fast-food chain across the country, the white management began awarding franchises to black businesspeople. Almost never, however, did blacks receive locations in economically viable neighborhoods. Through case studies, with Cleveland as one extended example, Chatelain explores the relationships between black franchisees and black residents. In addition to nutritional value and the prices of menu items, the author also cogently examines franchisee support for neighborhood initiatives, such as breakfast feeding programs aimed at low-income children, financing of community centers, and the number of jobs, minimum wage or otherwise, for black residents. Chatelain’s impressive research and her insertion of editorial commentary will prove educational and enlightening for readers of all backgrounds.
An eye-opening and unique history lesson.