In 1969, Cleveland’s Black residents boycotted McDonald’s. For weeks, the company’s leadership had been locked in a stalemate with Black activists over who should own and operate the local franchises. It was all part of a bigger movement, whose goal was to build economic power in Black communities through Black-owned businesses. But 50 years later, how are the Black franchisees at McDonald’s faring? Were the golden arches a golden ticket to economic equality?
Produced by Julia Press, with Charlie Herman and Sarah Wyman.
Marcia Chatelain is the author of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America.
Note: This transcript may contain errors.
CHARLIE HERMAN: In Ferguson, Missouri, on West Florissant Avenue, you’ll find a McDonald’s restaurant. It’s like any other McDonald’s you’d spot across the country: There’s a big red building, golden arches, and an American flag. When Marcia Chatelain began researching her book on McDonald’s and Black America, she made a point to visit this one.
MARCIA CHATELAIN: One of the first things I saw was a flyer announcing the winner of a McDonald’s workers scholarship.
CH: This restaurant is a pillar in the community. It sponsors a mentoring program and works with Boys and Girls Clubs, the local public library, youth sports programs, and the zoo. It’s a place where people gather.
MC: In communities like Ferguson where you have a lot of poor residents, sometimes McDonald’s is where people use the internet. So it’s the WiFi. It’s where you can get the air conditioning.
CH: And in 2014, this McDonald’s was also in the eye of the storm when Ferguson erupted in protests over the shooting of Michael Brown.
NBC: There is growing outrage tonight after an unarmed African American teenager was shot and killed by police in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.
WASHINGTON POST: Hands up don’t shoot!
MC: If you think about all of the international activist communities that showed up at Ferguson, Missouri, they come to America, and the place that is open and lively is the McDonald’s.
CH: People took refuge in that McDonald’s from the unrest surrounding them — fires, gunshots, rubber bullets and tear gas.
CNN: The McDonald’s, the window was broken into again, we saw a couple other stores broken into and looted…
CH: Neighbors went there to watch the results of Michael Brown’s autopsy. Protesters stole milk from the fridge to treat their eyes after being tear gassed.
MC: It was one of the few businesses that had the financial capacity to remain open during the uprisings and bounce back after it was targeted. And I don’t think it is a coincidence that it is owned and operated by an African American.
CH: That McDonald’s was more than just a fast food restaurant. When reporters left and people turned their attention away from Ferguson, it was, and still is there, serving its community.
MC: Chaos brought McDonald’s into Black communities and it is in chaos that we are able to see the ways that the McDonald’s in the Black community serves far more purposes than giving people a place to eat.
CH: From Business Insider, this is Brought to by… Brands you know, stories you don’t. I’m Charlie Herman.
McDonald’s is the largest restaurant company in the world. Its business is to serve burgers and fries for millions of people.
But what happens when a brand like McDonald’s finds itself in the middle of a struggle over civil rights?
Today, across the country, Americans are demanding solutions to racial injustice and inequality. Many corporations are trying to respond.
Fifty years ago, residents of Cleveland, Ohio made similar demands and went head to head with McDonald’s over its role in Black communities.
Today, the fight for the right to franchise. Could the golden arches be a golden ticket to economic equality?
Stay with us.
CH: What are some of your earliest memories about McDonald’s?
MC: Oh my gosh, I ate so much McDonald’s as a kid. (laughs) I know, and as a young adult I should say.
CH: I did too.
CH: Marcia Chatelain and I grew up in the 1980s: her in Chicago and me in Oakland. We both have these shared memories of the McDonald’s menus of our youth.
MC: They had hot mustard, which was way too sophisticated for my kid palette.
CH: There was like a barbecue one.
MC: I remember when the McLean Deluxe came out and it was supposed to be a lower fat burger.
CH: (laughs) Right.
CH: As a kid, it was a place for birthday parties and cheap meals with friends. I remember it’s where I surprised my mom after I got my braces off after having them for nearly four long years of high school. (Terrible.) In Chicago, Chatelain remembers one McDonald’s downtown where all the decor was inspired by African American history.
MC: They would have historical portraits or they would make sure that the liners on the trays had history facts. I knew the Black McDonald’s operators who gave me awards for Black history month competitions that I was in. I remember hearing the operators on the local Black radio stations talking about, ‘make sure you fill out your census, make sure you fill out to vote.’ So these were individuals who were clearly identifiable as people who were doing more than just business.
CH: Chatelain is now a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University. But those early memories stayed with her when she went on to write a book about how, as she puts it, McDonald’s became “Black.” It’s called “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America.” She says that relationship really started during the Civil Rights movement and one year in particular, 1968.
WTOP: Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.
CH: After King’s assassination, there were uprisings and protests in cities across the nation.
WHB: Unrest in Kansas City, Missouri for the weekend and riots on Tuesday. On Wednesday, on Thursday, on Friday, more of the same…
CH: Communities were devastated by these protests, and in the aftermath, McDonald’s found it had a problem: many white people had fled the city for the suburbs. That meant a lot of McDonald’s restaurants in urban areas were being abandoned by their white owners and employees. At the time, there had never been a Black McDonald’s franchisee.
MC: McDonald’s saw this as an opportunity to maintain their businesses in neighborhoods that were adjacent to or in African American communities by bringing in Black franchise owners and allowing those white franchise owners to do business in the suburbs.
CH: Plus, McDonald’s thought this setup might help protect those restaurants if there was any racial unrest in the future.
MC: The owner had an expectation put upon him, that he would keep relations good, and he would make people feel like that McDonald’s belonged to them.
CH: But in Cleveland, Ohio, McDonald’s faced a more complicated situation. It was the first major city in the country to have a Black mayor, a man named Carl Stokes. Here he is in a video produced by the local news site, Cleveland.com.
CARL STOKES: I wanted to be mayor because I felt I understood some of the problems that afflict us in the central cities.
CH: For many people in Cleveland, white and Black, Mayor Stokes represented unity. In an interview with a local TV anchor, he made it clear that he knew the challenges that came with that.
CS: There’s a great reaction against the endeavors of minority groups, particularly the Black minority group, to achieve full expression and free participation in this society and this is compounded by a great feeling of fear.
CH: After King’s death, Mayor Stokes had managed to prevent protests in Cleveland’s Black community. But that meant there wasn’t white flight, like in other cities.
MC: If the King uprisings were the impetus for a lot of white franchisees to leave Black neighborhoods, that didn’t happen in Cleveland.
CH: And that meant the McDonald’s restaurants in the city’s Black neighborhoods were still owned and operated by white people. That didn’t sit well with some local Black leaders.
MC: They knew someone was getting rich, and they see that those dollars aren’t being reinvested in their everyday lives.
CH: In other cities, Black franchisees had become local leaders, and some put their restaurants’ profits towards community development. So in Cleveland, one man started demanding the same opportunity. His name was Ernest Hilliard.
MC: So Ernest Hilliard was an interesting guy. He had appeared on religious radio as “Prophet Thomas.”
CH: Prophet Frank Thomas of the First Spiritual Christian Church of America. Hilliard’s show aired on a station that pioneered Black radio, which had already become an important force in Black communities. Jack Gibson was a DJ in those days. He put it this way in an interview for a Smithsonian series, “Black Radio: Telling It Like it Was”:
JACK GIBSON: Black people never had a chance to have anybody that they could rely on and listen to every day, and who could entertain them every day. We were their, their informers. They believed in us.
CH: As a famous radio evangelist and religious leader, Ernest Hilliard was well-known in Cleveland’s Black neighborhoods. In 1969, he decided that he wanted to take on a new role: as a McDonald’s franchise owner. That would mean he would own and operate a McDonald’s restaurant. He’d have to follow the rules set by the corporation and share some of his profits, but for the most part, he’d add another title to his resume: small business owner.
MC: He went and he did some work in a McDonald’s. And then there was a very intensive interview and paperwork process with the regional manager, and it seems as if he had done some of this process and then was told that his work in a McDonald’s wouldn’t quite qualify and that he actually had to go to Hamburger University in the Chicago area. And so it seems as if he might have gotten some misinformation or may have, as he believed, was led down the wrong path.
CH: Does he think he was discriminated against?
MC: Definitely. So there was a sense that there was racial discrimination happening because the existing franchise owners didn’t want out.
CH: So Hilliard turned to a friend for help, a fellow religious leader named David Hill.
MC: He was known as someone who was really challenging kind of the racial and political limits of Cleveland across a wide racial spectrum.
CH: To put it mildly, Hill was a controversial figure. He had a lengthy criminal history and had spent time in a hospital for the criminally insane. Plus, he was radical in both his ideas and his approach.
MC: He was known for doing outrageous public stunts like an anti-capitalist Christmas campaign, in which he said he would lynch Santa.
CH: When Hilliard approached him for help, Hill was quick to take up the cause, in part because he had his own ideas about how McDonald’s could serve the Black community.
MC: David Hill sees this as an opportunity to create, in a sense, a community investment tool in which people could have shares into the McDonald’s and they could reap the rewards of the profits, and he also believes that McDonald’s has a community responsibility to help bring resources like pools and parks and to fund community programs and so he really, thought about the terms of corporate responsibility in ways that McDonald’s hadn’t quite moved in that direction.
CH: With the help of Mayor Stokes, Hill set up a meeting with McDonald’s executives in Cleveland’s City Hall. The plan was to discuss Hilliard’s bid to own a franchise. I don’t think this will come as a surprise, but the two sides didn’t really get anywhere, except to make a plan to meet again.
MC: But before the meeting can happen, Ernest Hilliard is shot and killed in his driveway. This is where the story goes from a local level community argument to national news.
CH: That’s after the break.
CH: We’re back. A few days before David Hill’s next meeting with McDonald’s, his friend Ernest Hilliard was shot in his driveway.
CH: This killing of Hilliard, what do we know about it?
MC: We know that it happened on the July 4th holiday. We also know that his wife later tells police that as he was dying outside of his home, she heard him say ‘white folks’ when he was asked who did this. She also claimed that he had gotten some threatening phone calls before he was shot and killed.
CH: To this day, no one has been prosecuted for Hilliard’s murder.
MC: The police claimed that she may have misunderstood her husband, that he was saying ‘white Ford’ because a white Ford was seen in the vicinity of the Hilliard home. We really do not know, but I will say this: it is not unimaginable that acts of violence and violent intimidation was part of the process when African-Americans would enter unknown territory.
CH: And many in the community were convinced there was a connection between Hilliard’s death and his efforts to run a McDonald’s. While previously, Hilliard’s campaign for a franchise hadn’t been that closely followed…
MC: After there’s a murder, a lot of people are concerned about whether or not Cleveland is a place in which African Americans can express a desire and be respected, whether the mayor is actually looking out for the interests of Black Cleveland, and whether or not Cleveland can be a place in which African American residents can replicate some of the economic boycott strategies that were so important to the civil rights struggle a decade earlier.
CH: Ernest Hilliard and David Hill’s fight to own a McDonald’s franchise in Cleveland wasn’t happening in a bubble. Going into the 1970s, the civil rights movement was changing. Chatelain says that even though there were important gains for Black Americans, many of them still weren’t seeing much of an improvement in the quality of their daily lives.
MC: You could have a Voting Rights Act, you can have laws against housing discrimination, you can have access to public accommodations, but it comes up short because tied to all of these issues was an issue of economics. And there wasn’t a robust way in which African Americans could then earn and live in order to enjoy these new freedoms and so people are exhausted. They don’t see the fruits of the trees of civil rights, but what they do see is the Nixon administration saying ‘Black capitalism, more economic opportunity, where do you want to sign up?’
RICHARD NIXON: And let us build bridges my friends, build bridges to human dignity across that gulf that separates Black America from white America. [applause]
CH: What Nixon’s talking about has a name, “Black Capitalism.” It’s an idea that goes back to the 19th century and the argument goes like this: as Black Americans build up wealth and economic power as consumers and business owners, political power will follow. It’s an approach to civil rights that was embraced by the Nixon administration.
RN: Instead of government jobs and government housing and government welfare, let government use its tax and credit policies to enlist in this battle the greatest engine of progress ever developed in the history of man: American private enterprise.
CH: If individuals and companies were making money, the thought was it would lift up the rest of the community. It’s like trickle down economics. In this version, federal government programs, corporate recruitment and financing would be used to build up Black neighborhoods. But it would only really work if the Black business owners operated in all-Black communities.
MC: It’s entirely contingent on hyper-segregation. And I think that this is why Black capitalism became one of the few ways that Richard Nixon tried to signal to Black communities. Black capitalism works only if you have all-Black neighborhoods and communities.
CH: After years of protesting for civil rights, some activists embraced Black capitalism was a more concrete way to improve people’s lives.
MC: And while I’m critical of every aspect of it, what I recognize is that for a number of African American leaders, they are still trying to anticipate what is their best hope for making real their great dreams and their loftiest goals and so, so much had changed and so little had changed all at once that I see why people thought McDonald’s would deliver something.
CH: And that brings us back to McDonald’s and Cleveland and why Ernest Hilliard wanted to own a franchise. He saw it as a way to become a successful businessman and at the same time, invest in his community. It’s why he did everything McDonald’s told him to do to get a franchise. And when he didn’t get one, and then was killed? Shot dead in his own driveway? Well, suddenly, a local murder — whether it was connected to Hilliard’s attempts to get a franchise or not — had much bigger implications, and brought a lot more attention to just what McDonald’s was doing in Black communities.
And Hilliard’s friend, David Hill, channeled that energy into a movement: he formed an organization called Operation Black Unity. It launched a boycott of McDonald’s locations where Hilliard wanted to own his restaurant, Cleveland’s predominantly Black East Side. Operation Black Unity distributed flyers with “McDonald’s Hamburger Corp. versus Black People.” And Hill made sure McDonald’s felt it where it mattered — its bank account.
MC: The McDonald’s restaurants that were targeted by the Operation Black Unity boycott really suffered. They suffered because people didn’t want to engage with the protesters to go in, even if they didn’t agree with the protesters. And they, after a few days, were closing early and were saying like, ‘We’re not making any money and we’re not able to pay our workers.’
CH: If McDonald’s wanted these restaurants to stay in business, the company realized it would have to compromise.
MC: Operation Black Unity advocated for African American franchise ownership. That is something that everyone agreed upon. You start to see the fault lines in Operation Black Unity because people disagreed on what that should look like and how that should be achieved and so what I love about this story, it really helps you see the nuance in Black politics. It isn’t just about conservative versus liberal, it’s all about these ideas of how do we get there?
CH; Some people supported Black capitalism. Get Black Americans in charge of franchise locations and the rest would follow.
MC: Others believed that the community should own the McDonald’s, and others believe that part of the fight should be about getting jobs at McDonald’s, and others said, ‘No, this isn’t about jobs. This is about ownership.’
CH: And still others just didn’t see Black capitalism as the path to success. Mixed in with all these perspectives was a general disappointment with Mayor Stokes, the nation’s first Black mayor of a major city. There was a sense that he wasn’t fully supporting the protest. Not to be forgotten, were the people who worked at those restaurants and what they wanted. Many of them lived in the neighborhood and the boycott meant lost wages and in some cases, lost jobs when their McDonald’s shut down.
MC: One of the most complicated parts of the Cleveland boycott were the people who said like, ‘You are only hurting African Americans by doing this boycott.’
CH: And then finally, there was David Hill and what he wanted. From McDonald’s, for the community, and for himself.
MC: So Hill became a problem the second he stepped forward. (laughs)
CH: Hill could be militant. In one of his meetings with McDonald’s, he supposedly threatened to “bomb and burn” if his demands weren’t met. In this situation, where racial tensions were running high, some saw Hill and his calls for violence as threatening.
MC: And I think it really represents the ways that, in the 1970s, violence was everywhere when these racial boundaries were being challenged and crossed.
CH: The protests in Cleveland grew, and in the summer of 1969, there was one particularly heated meeting.
MC: This is probably one of the most iconic meetings in McDonald’s history.
CH: McDonald’s executives sat across the table from the members of Operation Black Unity. Mayor Stokes stood by to facilitate.
MC: People were armed, people brought guns to this meeting in case it got too explosive.
CH: By this point, Cleveland’s white franchise owners wanted out. Their businesses were being crushed by the boycott, and they were done being pulled into contentious civil rights disputes. For McDonald’s, however, it wasn’t so easy. The company knew how it would look to give into threats and intimidation, and to someone like David Hill in particular. Plus, Hill was making demands that could set a precedent for McDonald’s to have a role in local communities that it just didn’t want.
MC: Operation Black Unity made demands” ‘We get to pick the franchisees. We get a fee for our, I guess, search firm capacities. We get a pool, we get a park, we get money invested in a community trust for us.’ And McDonald’s, ‘No, no, no.’ On every point.
CH: Mayor Stokes was caught in the middle. His white Democratic primary opponent was using the protest as a scare tactic, asking what local business would be next to fall victim to the threats of Black activism? If Stokes wanted to live up to his promise of unity and get reelected, he had to get this settled.
Meanwhile, members of Operation Black Unity turned on Hill, accusing him of extortion. Hill lost control of the movement he had started.
MC: Now, while all of this posturing and back and forth is happening in the press as well as the national newspapers pick up this strange story of a McDonald’s boycott and Carl Stokes, McDonald’s was keeping an option warm this entire time.
CH: Turns out, behind the scenes, McDonald’s and Mayor Stokes had been in talks with another community group. One that would take over the restaurants that white franchise owners were giving up. And that this group would be responsible for any community development projects like swimming pools and parks. That meant McDonald’s was off the hook. Oh, and it’d never have to negotiate with David Hill ever again.
The day before Mayor Stokes’ primary election, he arranged an agreement with McDonald’s and Operation Black Unity to end the boycott. Stokes was reelected. And while Hill did not get control of the restaurants, they were being run by members of the Black community.
MC: I guess, the question is how do we measure success in this situation? The boycott did expose Black economic power in Cleveland in a time where African Americans were, for the majority, living in poverty. It did show that there was a difference in having a Black mayor even though it did not solve all of the problems.
CH: The Cleveland boycott was covered in papers across the country. And the eventual agreement demonstrated to other activists that local Black communities could have a voice in negotiating with an international corporation about how it operates in their neighborhoods.
MC: Even for that brief moment, they really did impact McDonald’s. And so I think the takeaways from those experiences were then deployed in different cities as they were challenging, ‘What did it mean for McDonald’s to be such a presence?’
CH: In the years after Cleveland, more and more Black entrepreneurs around the country took over existing McDonald’s and opened new ones. For 50 years, they’ve tested if Black capitalism can improve the lives of Black Americans in their communities. Was it enough?
That’s when we come back.
CH: We’re back.
In 1969, Cleveland’s Black entrepreneurs got what they wanted: ownership of local McDonald’s franchises. It marked a change in how the company would operate in Black communities for years to come.
Black capitalists hoped that McDonald’s restaurants could help franchisees in several ways. First they’d let them become business owners. Next, with the support of McDonald’s, their businesses would become profitable. And then, with that money, Black franchisees could invest in their communities and thereby help other Black people.
It hasn’t been that simple.
CH: From your reporting and talking to people, how are Black franchisees feeling about McDonald’s corporate?
KATE TAYLOR: I spoke with a lot of former franchisees who especially have very mixed and more negative feelings where they feel like they’ve been forced out basically, that McDonald’s put them in a situation where they could not win, they could not continue to stay with the company.
CH: Kate Taylor is a senior correspondent covering restaurants and retail for Business Insider. At the end of last year, she reported that many Black franchisees were making significantly less than their white counterparts. She also found that, in the last few years, the number of Black-owned McDonald’s has been falling. Out of the 1700 people who own McDonald’s restaurants, fewer than 200 are Black. That’s down from over 300 in 2007.
KT: People have been aware of these issues for decades and from people I talked to, it kind of goes through ebbs and flows where they feel that McDonald’s is listening to them, making some changes and then periods where they feel like McDonald’s is ignoring their concerns.
CH: This goes all the way back to the 1970s. And in response, Black franchisees created a group to advocate on their behalf: the National Black McDonald’s Operators Association. Over the years, some of them have accused McDonald’s of discrimination.
More recently, Black franchisees have told Kate that they’ve faced obstacles on several fronts. First, McDonald’s restaurants were not as financially accessible as they had hoped for.
KT: It’s more than a million dollars to just open one location. So you have to be a millionaire several times over, basically, if you are going to thrive in the McDonald’s system at this point.
CH: Add to that, in recent years, McDonald’s corporate has demanded expensive tech upgrades and moved towards a model where fewer franchisees own more restaurants. That’s made it even harder for Black African Americans to buy into the McDonald’s system.
KT: Because African Americans in this country are less likely to have the generational wealth, they just aren’t in the same position to kind of invest millions of dollars as frequently as some white franchisees have been.
CH: In 2017, the Federal Reserve released a report showing that, on average, Black families’ net worth is 15% that of white families.
So, getting a franchise has become more challenging. And that brings us to the second point: that these restaurants would make Black business owners money. Kate found that it’s been difficult for them to make a profit running a McDonald’s. Several told her that the company limited which ones they were allowed to run and where they could open new restaurants.
KT: If you’re in an area that is lower income, it can cost a lot more for security costs. Um, so that’s something where you’re paying more for security, you’re paying more for insurance because of concerns related to that. And that just cuts into the bottom line.
CH: Current and former Black franchisees told Kate they’ve attempted to run restaurants in more affluent areas. One told her that when he was working as a corporate liaison, he tried to help a fellow Black franchisee open another store nearby.
KT: McDonald’s basically told both franchisees that there are no stores available. It just wasn’t a possibility at that point. And then literally the same week McDonald’s announced that there was going to be a white franchisee opening a store on the same street that the Black franchisee had been trying to open a location on.
CH: Kate said that McDonald’s declined to comment on this specific example. Being excluded from owning restaurants in higher income neighborhoods has financially hurt Black franchisees.
KT: To sum it up in the most basic way, Black franchisees were making about $68,000 less per store a month than the overall total for average franchisees overall.
CH: That gap has more than double from what it was in 2012. When Black franchisees have spoken out about their concerns, some told Kate that they noticed strange corporate behavior like McDonald’s employees showing up for unplanned inspections late on a Friday night — once even on Christmas Eve. Or getting written up for minor infractions like a torn piece of wallpaper.
KT: And that could lead to franchisees being penalized financially or it could lead to them getting their stores taken away.
CH: Mixed in with all of this are fears that if Black franchise owners are struggling financially — maybe even selling their restaurants — they won’t invest in their local communities. Remember, as Marcia Chatelain explained, McDonald’s corporation set a precedent in Cleveland 50 years ago that it would not take a big role in community development.
MC: They did not want other African American activist groups to believe that they would be given those concessions. I also think that they just really believed that that was the responsibility of individual franchise owners, to use their profits as they saw fit and to connect to the community.
CH: That meant already burdened Black franchise owners have had to pick up the slack.
MC: What they’re doing is essentially stepping up and saying, ‘Well, we’re business people. We’re often wealthier than the communities that we serve. We have a social responsibility.’ But with that responsibility, we are exposed to the ways that there is an uneasy relationship between corporate success and the ability for communities to get their basic needs met.
CH: A few days after Kate’s story was published in December, McDonald’s did announce it was creating a new executive position to address franchisee diversity.
We asked several of these franchisees to speak with us for this story. None of them would talk on the record. There’s this feeling among some at McDonald’s, from the corporate leaders down to individual franchise owners, that many issues should be handled internally.
And McDonald’s says it regularly meets and talks openly with members of the Black McDonald’s Operators Association.
KT: The idea of being a family is still very, very central at McDonald’s. In so many things that you read, internal documents, they refer to each other as a “McFamily.” So I think that some franchisees do not want to see McDonald’s get negative press over things like this because even if they feel like they’re being treated unfairly, they feel like they’re in this community that is stronger together.
CH: For some Black franchisees, McDonald’s is not the problem.
KT: A lot of the issues impacting McDonalds’ Black franchisees are not unique to McDonald’s at all. It’s just systematic racism.
CH: Owning and running a McDonald’s restaurant was seen by some Black communities as a way to build money and power. It was a means to an end. But on its own, it’s not enough.
CH: Is it too much to expect business and Black capitalism to be a solution to economic injustice?
MC: It makes no sense to me.
CH: Again, Marcia Chatelain.
MC: Businesses are in the service of enriching themselves and their owners. Full-stop. Society should be in the interest of taking care of its people.
CH: When we reached out to McDonald’s about this story, the company said that Chatelain’s book is “not an accurate representation of McDonald’s past and current initiatives to create a diverse and equitable community for our franchisees, employees and customers.” The company highlighted its efforts to recruit more diverse franchisees and corporate employees, and its ongoing program to help 2 million unemployed and underemployed young people get jobs. It also acknowledged, “we understand we still have work to do.”
And it’s true that plenty of Black franchisees have also invested time and money in their communities and made positive contributions — from jobs to after-school programs to sponsoring neighborhood sports teams. Just think of what Chatelain saw at her McDonald’s when she was growing up.
But any evaluation of the success — and failure — of Black capitalism and McDonald’s also has to take into account other, very significant consequences.
MC: Whether it’s the health of communities, whether it’s the wages of workers, whether it’s the exacerbation of social inequality, all of this comes at a very high price.
CH: Can a franchise like McDonald’s be a tool for combating racial injustice?
MC: No. What it can do is be a place where people generate wealth and then use that wealth to try to help solve some problems, but they will never see the extinction of those problems. And so the root cause of why there’s so many challenges and why, frankly, Black businesspeople are under so much pressure to perform, not just for themselves, but for entire communities, they will never solve that.
CH: Anywhere you go, you’ll likely find a McDonald’s restaurant. And you know what to expect because on the surface they’re all the same — that’s the point. But that’s actually not true, especially in communities of color. If you look harder, you’ll see a history of 50 years of hope that financial success could make a difference.
CH: Marcia Chatelain is the author of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America.
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This episode was produced by Julia Press, with Sarah Wyman and me, Charlie Herman. Special thanks to Claire Banderas, Marisa Palmer, and Bria Overs.
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