McDonald’s and African Americans: It’s Complicated

WASHINGTON: The companies have proclaimed their support for anti-racism anti-African American protests taking place across the United States, including perhaps the most iconic of them all: the ubiquitous fast-food chain McDonald’s.

“Today we stand with black communities across America,” read a June post on the brand’s social media accounts that listed the names of several African Americans killed by police and stated, ” He was one of us, she was one of us, they were all one of us.

For Marcia Chatelain, professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University in Washington, McDonald’s support for the biggest civil rights protests to hit the United States in decades has not was a surprise.

As she writes in her book “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America,” the relationship between McDonald’s and black Americans is particularly complex – a story of empowerment colliding with the limits of American capitalism and inequality.

“McDonald’s is staying on brand,” Chatelain told AFP of the restaurant’s support for the protests. “They always took a stand when they knew that position was going to be supported not only by its consumer base, but also expand its profile.”

With nearly 39,000 restaurants in 119 countries and revenue of $21.1 billion in 2019, McDonald’s is among the largest fast food chains in the world and the golden arches of its logo are perhaps more related to the concept of American capitalism than any other brand.

The company’s roots are in the lifestyle changes that took place in the United States after World War II, but Chatelain said his involvement in black communities can be traced to the aftermath of the riots that hit many American cities in 1968.

“Opening up franchising to African-American communities has cultivated incredibly wealthy people who have then been able to contribute to a number of philanthropies, whether it’s historically black colleges and universities, or efforts local communities,” Chatelain said.

This push was consistent with a prevailing trend under former President Richard Nixon toward black capitalism, or the encouragement to create African-American wealth through business.

This approach, Chatelain said, cannot address the long history of racist legislation in the United States.

“It doesn’t necessarily eradicate the racism that has exacerbated the racial wealth gap, that creates discriminatory practices in lending, and also, it doesn’t solve the problems of people who will never be millionaires.”

Consider McDonald’s role in job creation. Black-owned franchises provided jobs for African Americans that Chatelain said were “important in the sense that they’re readily available, and they can be accessed by people who don’t have a high level of what we call a formal training”.

But McDonald’s employees don’t have access to health care, paid sick leave and childcare for parents, which “exacerbates turnover, and then (McDonald’s) takes advantage of turnover so as not to create benefits,” Chatelain said.

That tension persists to this day as the company faces a organizing effort known as the “Fight for $15,” which includes a $15-an-hour minimum wage among its demands.

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