The Long History Behind Allegations Of Racial Discrimination Against Mcdonald’sRoundup
tags: racism, fast food, Black capitalism, McDonalds, franchising, Retail industry
Chin Jou is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Sydney and author of Supersizing Urban America: How Inner Cities Got Fast Food with Government Help. She is working on a book about the political economy of prison food in the mass incarceration era.
Television viewers of a certain age may remember the McDonald’s “Calvin” commercials from the early 1990s. The earnest ad series featured Calvin, an African American teenager who began work as a McDonald’s crew member and quickly gained a sense of purpose and respect from his community. Calvin’s hard work would get him promoted to the McDonald’s “management team,” and one of the later ads hinted that he might own his own franchise one day.
Had Calvin been a real person and gone on to acquire his own McDonald’s franchise, today he might be among the 52 former Black McDonald’s franchisees who are suing the Chicago-based company and accusing it of discrimination. The former franchise owners allege that McDonald’s misled them about costs associated with owning outlets and sought to confine them to less profitable restaurants in minority communities that also came with higher security and insurance outlays. According to the lawsuit, McDonald’s also pressured Black franchisees to renovate their restaurants more quickly and without the same financial support it provided White franchisees.
In an emailed statement, McDonald’s denied the allegations and said the company was “confident that the facts will show how committed we are to the diversity and equal opportunity of the McDonald’s System, including across our franchisees, suppliers and employees.” If true, however, the allegations are stunning, given that African American fast food franchisees and civil rights groups protested these precise forms of discrimination nearly four decades ago.
McDonald’s and other fast-food chains first recruited African American franchisees in the late 1960s and 1970s as suburban markets were becoming increasingly saturated and they sought to expand to inner-city locations, including those in African American neighborhoods. Notably, the federal government, through small-business loan guarantees, urban and rural economic revitalization initiatives, and minority entrepreneurship programs, contributed to the fast-food industry’s move into African American neighborhoods.
As fast-food chains expanded into African American neighborhoods, community and Black Power activists fought for McDonald’s franchises in their neighborhoods to be Black-owned. McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants agreed to facilitate the sale of franchises to African Americans. While this was a significant development with the potential to boost African American entrepreneurship and keep more Black consumer dollars in African American communities, fast-food companies also outsourced the everyday risks of operating outlets in more challenging locations without offering adequate support, according to Black franchisees.
As Brady Keys, a former NFL defensive back who became the first African American Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken franchisee in the late 1960s and early 1970s related to Black Enterprise magazine in 1974: “[Fast-food companies] know that doing business in my area is hell. There’s cutting, shooting, killing. So they say, we really don’t want to do this ourselves, so why don’t we get this black cat over here and franchise him?”
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