Three HASTAC Scholars Interviewed Dr. Chatelain:
Mai Ibrahim: Franchise is a very interesting read. What inspired you to write it?
I’ve always been fascinated about the way that people involved in nutritional advocacy and food justice have talked about the eating habit of poor people of color. I often find that there is a lot of castigation and advocacy for nutrition education, but rarely are their conversations about why some communities have such few choices in what to eat and where to eat. I wanted to write a book that historicizes how we got to a place where there are such gulfs in access to grocery stores and such disparity among health circumstances across and race and class lines.
Mai Ibrahim: What would you hope that readers would take away from this book?
I want people to use history as a tool for food justice activism because Franchise is about capitalism, first and foremost. A societal critique of the fast food industry for the food’s nutritional value cannot animate any substantive work to combat it without also exploring the ways it has grafted itself onto black life and culture. I don’t write a lot about the food McDonald’s serves; rather, I talk about how McDonald’s used black franchise owners to seize upon black consumers during an era in which black economic power and black capitalism supplanted visions of racial and economic justice.
Mai Ibrahim: Has the book impacted you emotionally? If so, how do you deal with that?
I think that a lot of the archival work in looking at McDonald’s advertisements and commercials threw me into some deep feelings of nostalgia--some joy about the way that McDonald’s was such a treat for me as a child and going to McDonald’s with my friends after school was such a symbol of my independence, as well as an uneasy feeling about how much consumer culture has shaped my memories of various stages of my life. I also think a lot about my own class position, and how fast food is no longer one of my primary sources of food because I’ve earned enough to have more options available to me. Throughout the book I talk about the constrained choices that black Americans are often dealing with when trying to provide for themselves or their communities. When I was on my book tour, I realized that the class of black businesspeople I was critiquing in the book for believing that if they were willing participants in the capitalist machine of McDonald’s that they could address some of the consequences of racism were not that different than me. I’ve worked really hard at managing the structural inequalities of higher education, and although I know the system is rigged, I was heartened to realize that sometimes I believed that my best efforts or hard work could do anything to protect me or those I cared about from the ways that racism and sexism operate. That made me very emotional on a flight from one book event to another.
Mai Ibrahim: The book discusses the painful reality of racial inequality, do you think the situation has improved today?
I unfortunately see very little in terms of structural change from the period I write about beginning in the late 1960s and the present. I see that we have made strides in ‘including’ people into structures, but there has been no transformation. The infiltration of McDonald’s into black communities has led to many black millionaires through franchising contracts and created lucrative careers for black accountants, lawyers, consultants, suppliers and advertising executives. This has allowed for a great philanthropic effort on behalf of black institutions. This has helped give many black people entry level positions and a pathway to work. These are all fine things, and they do nothing to address the structurally obstinate nature of capitalism and economic inequality. I think we can say that some economic gains have come for a small few at the expense of a mass of workers and consumers. And, it has furthered absolved the state from reckoning with the underinvestment and divestment in black communities, because one of the results of so many wealthy black franchise owners in predominantly black communities is that the local McDonald’s franchisee would try to fill the gaps between individuals and the state that failed them.
Lisa Covington: I was struck by the positive community engagement of individual franchises. What did you consider as the greatest contribution from a McDonald’s in your hometown of Chicago?
For me personally, I saw a lot of black McDonald’s operators underwriting the cultural resources of black Chicagoans. From sponsoring black history month activities to their contribution to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration in the 1980s by commissioning television specials and in-store ephemera, I’ve long noticed that kind of connection. The local chapters of the National Black McDonald’s Operators Association are powerful entities and it’s important to engage in the ways that corporate benevolence has shapeshifted into our ideas and expectations for what we call corporate responsibility today.
Lisa Covington: You share a comprehensive view of fast food as a source of power and despair for Black communities. What is an area you would have liked to explore further that did not make it into the book?
I wish I had an opportunity to delve a little deeper into the experiences of workers. Although I talked about how black-franchised McDonald’s boasted that they were the greatest providers of jobs for black youth, I don’t get into some of the complicated, intraracial conflicts surrounding black franchisees and black workers. I also would love to think through a digital project on fast food culture broadly. We often think of it as low-culture or generic, but I think conceptually it is such a creative world that requires complex thinking about consumer desires, aesthetics, and efficiency.
Lisa Covington: Many of us have childhood memories that took place at McDonald’s. Do you have a childhood memory of McDonald’s? If so, what is the memory?
Where to begin? I had McDonadl’s birthday parties and it was the perfect setting for city kids who lived in apartments. I loved a McDonald’s birthday party because the sheet cakes they provided for the parties were exceptional!
Azalia Primadita Muchransyah: In the concluding chapter, you mentioned Naomi Klein’s book. Interestingly, I did think about her while reading your book, and I also recently saw her virtual talk about how capitalism is the real virus that creates a pandemic of social injustice all over the world. I feel like this is an important point you are trying to make in this book, that Black capitalism is so complex that we have to look into different facets and try to come up with a more comprehensive solution. Can you talk a little bit more about what you think can and should be done in the more immediate time?
I really appreciate Klein’s, and others, analysis of disaster capitalism as a call to be vigilant in moments of disruption and chaos. The two points I forgot to make more explicit in the book are that McDonald’s in black America is a form of disaster capitalism because it was the uprising of the 1960s that cleared the space for McDonald’s to pivot toward what was being called the ethnic market and then they suggested that in doing so they were being socially progressive. And, the success of McDonald’s in black America is often not accounted for in the analysis of the black capitalism projects of the 1960s and 1970s. Historians have pointed to the failures of Soul City, North Carolina or some of the community development groups that did not bring black-owned businesses and manufacturing to cities like Detroit and Watts. Yet, they fail to recognize that one of the biggest success stories of black capitalism is the fast food industry in black America.
Azalia Primadita Muchransyah: The current COVID-19 pandemic changes life as we know it. Business is not running as per usual. I wonder if you are going to do any follow-up research on Black capitalism impacted by this crisis. Do you plan to maybe visit it later on from the historical point-of-view after this is all over, or do you think it will need a more immediate response to solve this problem as it is occurring in real-time?
I’ve been keeping posted on the challenges of black-owned businesses in accessing the relief programs for small business, and it reminds me of the era I examine in my book. There was a myth that there were all these programs under the umbrella of minority business enterprise, but banks continued to discriminate in lending, and franchises had the upper hand in all of this. Today, we see the fast food industry putting workers in dangerous positions by remaining open for drive-thru service and delivery. And, I’m also fully prepared for the spate of bad ideas to renew the communities devastated by this crisis by an infusion of private sector solutions. So, we may see the death of the postal service, but the expansion of franchising.
Azalia Primadita Muchransyah: I understand that race is embedded and intertwined in the history of the United States of America. Therefore, I appreciate your thorough research and analysis and the smart way you frame the literal and metaphorical hunger in American black communities. In your first book, you talked about Chicago’s Great Migration, and in this book, you talk about black capitalism, both ideas coming from very personal connections. What is your next project going to be?
I have two ideas brewing. The first is an intellectual history about colleges and universities in the public imagination and consciousness. Why do we think that these institutions have the capacity to close social distance when they are predicated on social divides? I think a lot of that has to do with the presence of poor students and later a critical mass of black students on campuses. Then, I want to write a book about television judge shows and examine the ways that the lives of the poor are adjudicated in public and what this form of entertainment (and the advertisement that supports it) tell us about poverty in America.