New Book Exposes Fast Food’s Systemic Racism

by on April 3, 2023

The story of fast food’s relationship to Black folks is the story about America itself”— Naa Oyo A. Kwate

Naa Oyo A. Kwate’s brilliant new book, White Burgers Black Cash Fast Food From Black Exclusion to Exploitation, is an extraordinary achievement. Not content to focus on a single dynamic around the fast food industry and Blacks, Kwate describes how fast food racism intersected with urban renewal, white flight to the suburbs, and the defunding of Black urban neighborhoods.

And much more.

Fast food giants contributed mightily to the racial discrimination in hiring and corporate support that still plagues the United States. Their racism encouraged whites to link Blacks and fast-food outlets to unsafe spaces—after decades in which fast food advertised its outlets as a safe, wholesome and all-American dining option for White families.

Kwate’s book is a colossal rebuttal to the tens of billions in advertising dollars designed to promote the fast food industry as backing inclusive American values. She details how fast food giants treated Black neighborhoods as a colonial power—extracting revenue without giving much back.

Fast Food Takes Off

Hamburgers, long taken for granted as a quintessential American food, were not very popular into the 1930’s. White Castle and the first generation of fast food outlets had to sell the safety of hamburgers to a skeptical public. The name “White Castle” was no accident—from the very start fast food was designed for white customers and white workers only.

Fast food outlets avoided Black neighborhoods. And when whites left cities for the suburbs in the 1950’s fast food outlets relocated with them. Under traditional capitalist theory, fast food outlets would have sought to attract a growing Black consumer base in cities. But racism overtakes pure capitalism. The entire framing of the fast food industry as a safe and healthy environment for white families meant Blacks had to be kept out.

Many books have exposed how Blacks were denied federal housing loans after WWII. But less known is the racial exclusion of Black operators of fast foot outlets into the 1970’s. Jesse Jackson’s Operation Push pushed for Black franchise ownership but they were few and far between. Kwate has story after story about how corporations discriminated against Black franchise owners to virtually ensure their failure.

A “Civilizing” Force

Once fast food giants had no choice but to serve Black neighborhoods they repositioned their advertising to ensure it did not deter White customers. Chief among McDonald’s strategies was to portray their stores as a “civilizing” force for Blacks. Kwate cites a commercial showing a young Black man walking by gangs with his hat on backwards. He arrives at his job at McDonald’s, and turns his hat around. As Kwate describes, “McDonald’s has given him the fortitude he needs to reject the criminal life of the black street gang…The McDonald’s job can produce miracles.”

McDonald’s also sought to become a “civilizing influence” through an ad showing two young Black brothers. Their “wholesome enjoyment of McDonald’s is evidence of their assimilation to mainstream society. These are not the typically frightening Black youth of urban America. They are docile, oriented toward thrift” (the ad shows the older brother convincing the younger that eating at McDonald’s is part of “getting wise to money” as its burgers were then only fifty nine cents).”

KFC also ran ads showing itself as “civilizing” Blacks. It’s “Going to Work” campaign shows a young Black man dedicated to “making KFC great.” His priority is doing chicken right, echoing KFC’s then- new national advertising slogan.

Of course, these jobs designed to “civilize” Blacks started at minimum wage. They were classic dead-end jobs that left full time workers in poverty. Kwate does not delve into the wages issue, probably because Fast Food Nation covered it so well. The fast food industry has been the leading opponent fighting increases in the federal minimum wage. When you wonder why the minimum wage has fallen so far behind a living wage, it’s primarily due to the massive political pressure from fast food conglomerates

So while fast food giants extract profits from Black communities, they deny Blacks meaningful job or ownership opportunities.

Double Standard

Since the 1990’s fast food has become identified as a food pathology for Blacks. Even Barack Obama  publicly associated Black health problems with their alleged propensity to eat unhealthy fast food (Kwate notes that at a White House event Obama served the same food to kids he criticized them for eating). Kwate convincingly dispels these blame the victim arguments. She notes that steak frites are commonly associated with upscale, healthy dining while a hamburger with fries is not. A similar double standard is found in upscale chains like Shake Shack, whose hot dogs and hamburgers are not blamed for anyone’s health problems.

Kwate exposes the fast food industry as a driving force behind America’s racial and economic inequality. Corporations like McDonald’s are not mere bystanders. They didn’t just follow others. They were pioneers in an industry that could have created positive ownership and employment opportunities for Black communities—but instead racist leadership did everything in its power to prevent this outcome.

Kwate has written a powerful book that is also enjoyable to read. It also has a lot of good photos. I appreciate that the University of Minnesota Press published such a cutting-edge book. Anyone concerned about advancing racial justice in the U.S. will want to read it.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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