Over the past few weeks, businesses from sports leagues to fashion houses to ice cream purveyors have issued statements of solidarity with people protesting racist violence against Black people. Among these tweets and posts was a multimedia video from McDonald’s, which memorialized well-known Black victims of police and civilian killings. From Trayvon Martin to Atatiana Jefferson to George Floyd, the names were listed in muted tones of red and yellow, the signature hues of McDonaldland. The video declared that McDonald’s was standing with the Black community and donating money to the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Closing with the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” the McDonald’s statement may have given customers the impression that this was the first time the drive-through leader had to delicately acknowledge the roots of civil unrest while still selling Big Macs. But McDonald’s and the Black equality struggle have a long, complicated history. In fact, it was a moment similar to this one, in the spring of 1968, that brought Black consumers and dollars into McDonald’s consciousness. Since then, McDonald’s has profited handily from its Black customers, while its presence in Black communities has led to a vexing set of circumstances for Black wealth and health.
After Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, people in cities across the nation aired their grief and anger about his slaying by taking to the streets. Property damage and confrontations with police were not as commonplace as peaceful mourning and quiet reflection, but the passions that consumed cities from Los Angeles to Newark were significant enough to force local and national leadership to ask: Why did cities burn?
The responses were clear. Police brutality. Housing discrimination. Underfunded schools. A lack of good jobs. Few Black-owned businesses. Of all these pressing issues, many mayors and city councils decided to focus on the creation of Black-owned businesses. They believed that the building of Black wealth could mitigate, or distract from, the other consequences of racism. Meanwhile, many white business owners cared little about these answers, and they closed shop and fled inner-city communities. Among them were white-owned McDonald’s franchise owners, who were concerned that they would become greater targets of their neighborhood’s animus in future upheavals. They received the corporate office’s blessing to move on to franchises in white suburbs.
McDonald’s realized that there was a silver lining for the golden arches. In the late 1960s, more and more racial justice advocates and politicians were promoting Black capitalism — the ideology that prioritized Black economic development as a route to Black pride and power — after seeing failures in policy and practice to deliver on the promise of civil rights legislation to protect Black people. Aided by federal programs endorsed by President Richard Nixon to create more Black-owned businesses, supported by major civil rights organizations like the NAACP, and realizing the potential for attracting more Black diners, McDonald’s recruited Black businesspeople to take over the grills and counters of these abandoned stores. After discovering rich profits in the inner-city, where fast food was increasingly becoming one of a few commercial options, McDonald’s poured millions of dollars into expanding its footprint in Black communities with targeted advertising, donations to Black charities, and minority franchisee and supplier programs.
In the decades following this experiment in supporting Black-owned franchises, McDonald’s has held fast to the narrative that its infiltration into Black communities was an act of conscience rather than one of capitalism. When Los Angeles erupted after the acquittal of four officers in the beating of Rodney King in 1992, then-CEO Ed Rensi boasted that restaurants in south Los Angeles were protected from property damage because of McDonald’s “enlightened social policies begun more than three decades ago.”
From providing Black youth employment to creating college scholarships for Black employees to sponsoring youth sports and after-school programs, Black-franchised McDonald’s restaurants were far more than a drive-through. These highly visible acts of community outreach to Black consumers not only made McDonald’s popular, but also led the corporation to graft itself onto the story of civil rights. Other fast-food chains followed suit and capitalized on the precarious position of Black consumers living in the aftermath of gutted commercial districts, fewer grocery stores, and limited employment opportunities.
As communities gather to imagine the future of their neighborhood schools, move to defund police departments, and sketch out a plan for more Black-owned businesses on Main Streets, corporations will be hovering over them. Whether it comes in the form of charitable donations, grants, or promises that Black lives matter to the bottom line, the architects of Black futures have to remain vigilant and discerning. Opening up communities to businesses without consideration of what jobs pay, the quality of the health care they provide, and whether they pay a fair share of taxes will ensure that 2020 will not be the last time we see mass protest.
Marcia Chatelain is the author of “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America.”