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Chapter 2: Burgers in the Age of Black Capitalism

Moses Stone at McDonald's - Black & Positively Golden Day, standing in front of screen in black track suit talking into a microphone

Image: As the above image of Moses Stone at McDonald's Black and Positively Golden Day 2019 illuminates, McDonald's has continually employed a strategy of engaging translators (be it franchisees or hip-hop artists) to gain (and now, maintain) traction in black America. Image by Artskyagency, March 29, 2019. 

The opening paragraphs of Chapter Two: Burgers in the Age of Black Capitalism are visually evocative, situating the chapter in post-King assassination riot Chicago, where black neighbourhoods were left reckoning with the rubble of social discontent and grief taken to the streets. The scene, with its description of gutted buildings and spray-painted grievances, supports a historical, social imaginary of a post-riot landscape, and finds its manifestation in different sections of Franchise, a book that charts the social and political landscape that allowed for the expansion of the McDonald’s franchise into black America. 

Marcia Chatelain locates the rise of black capitalism in the late 1960s and 1970s within the nexus of post-uprising energy and momentum (and the subsequent fear of its power), a “growing market of upwardly mobile black consumers” and the strategic federal financing of equal opportunity business development (p.60). It is the constellating of these forces that lead to a period in which the language and rhetoric of civil rights are co-opted and re-written as business plans - a state agenda aimed to create a pacified black middle class more interested in upward mobility than liberation (p.73). 

While Chatelain includes voices that echo MLK’s critiques of capitalism and its “fail[ure] to meet the need of the masses” (p.60), the majority of the chapter focuses on those for whom black capitalism was an antidote to racial inequality, including, according to Chatelain, “civil rights advocates who in one breath criticized [Richard Nixon’s] regressive racial politics and in another repeated his ideas about black capitalism chapter and verse” (p.76).

Black capitalism became a state-sponsored project, one that looked to absorb moves for black liberation into a national agenda of capitalist accumulation and expansion predicated on the dispossession of Indigenous Land and exploitation of racialized labour. So long as calls for racial equality did not disrupt the capitalist social order, they could be appropriated by the state as a means of addressing civil rights demands and bolstering the economy. Black capitalism was palatable to politicians and the general (read: white) public, because, as Chatelain says, “capitalism, a system predicated on harsh inequalities, paradoxically softened the word “black,” because capitalism’s rough edges were smoothed out by its association with Americanism and patriotism.” (73).

It is within this context that franchising became a method through which corporations such as McDonald’s could take advantage of a physical and political landscape in transition by buying up property abandoned by white business owners and investing in black entrepreneurs willing to act as translators between McDonald’s and the black community.  With the support of government programs and policies that encouraged black capitalism, and black political commitments manifested in calls to “support black business”, McDonald’s moved into black America. 

Burgers in the Age of Black Capitalism most poignantly speaks to the role that black franchisees played as translators, interpreters, and intermediaries between the franchise and the communities they were embedded in. As Chatelain says, McDonald’s needed people “who could communicate with the corporate structure, and identify with blacks at a grassroots level” (p.61). It is the narrativization of the lives of these translators and their rise in the McDonalds universe that reveals the infrastructural machinery of franchising that made it a lucrative, racially and politically charged expansion strategy.

However, in a book rooted in collective struggle, individuals take the centre stage. While black capitalism, of course, did just this - upholding individuals so long as they uphold the system - in Burgers in the Age of Black Capitalism, this narrative comes at the expense of other vital relationships revealing of social and political dynamics that made this particular manifestation of black capitalism possible. Herman Petty, franchisee of the Woodlawn, Chicago McDonald’s, is a prominent figure in this chapter, and yet, his relationship with the Blackstone Rangers, a gang with business aims in the community who “agreed to concede the sliver of gang territory” (p.64) to the McDonalds is reduced to assumptions that “the rangers were not looking to fight Petty, and they may have been pleased to see the restaurant change hands from white to black” (p.64). Further, Chatelain suggests that Petty’s commitment to employing black women “after observing their abilities in the community” changed the gendered landscape of McDonald’s employment practices, but never speaks to the particular mobilization of black labour that made the success of McDonald’s possible. Lacking the incredible detail Chatelain employs in describing the other relationships that define McDonald’s expansion, these omissions remind us that capitalism functions through the invisibilization of the working class and the elevation of the model minority. 

Yet, Chatelain does speak to the self-organizing that brought together black franchisees in the National Black McDonald’s Operators Association (NBMOA), an organization that took McDonald’s to account for the inequity of support shown to black franchisees. As Chatelain says, “for black organizations, whether it be a business group, an art league, or a concerned parents club, racism necessitates some engagement with the politics of access or the search for belonging” (p.70). This particular formation of collectivity was allowed to exist as it applied pressure in the direction of capitalist expansion and promised not to disrupt the fundamental order of things. However, it also provided a platform for black franchisees to support each other and organize around the injustices they experienced in the majority-white McDonald’s universe.

Ultimately, Burgers in the Age of Black Capitalism highlights the role that McDonald’s, its move into black neighbourhoods and its employment of black franchisees, had in supporting the larger state-sponsored project of black capitalism. As Chatelain elucidates, “under capitalism, a company’s influence is broad and deep, and the most powerful companies synchronized their movements to the beat of social change, without ever acknowledging that can hear its sounds” (p.86).

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