Monday, January 31, 2022

Marcia Chatelain, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America (Liveright Publishing, 2020)

Over the Martin Luther King Day holiday a couple of weeks ago, I was reminded that Dr. King’s advocacy had a significant economic component that is almost always overshadowed by his achievements in the civil rights realm. “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter,” he is famously quoted as saying, “if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”

From Marcia Chatelain’s viewpoint, his reference to hamburgers is especially apt. In Franchise, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2021, she examines “the hidden history of the intertwined relationship between the struggle for civil rights and the expansion of the fast-food industry.” In this story, hamburger behemoth McDonald’s plays a prominent role.

After King’s assassination led to widespread violence in America’s urban centers, Chatelain argues, “the movement for racial justice pivoted its focus toward black business ownership.” The quickest way into business ownership was through a franchise system, where “an individual with no formal training or education can become a business owner—maybe even a millionaire—with only an owner’s manual and sheer will.” The earliest opportunities presented themselves in urban centers, where white entrepreneurs were often unsuccessful. Thus started a process by which minority owned fast-food eateries became “hyperconcentrated in the places that are the poorest and most racially segregated.”

As they say, food for thought.

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