AU Library hosts event on the prevalence of fast food outlets in communities of color

Georgetown University professor Marcia Chatelain addresses topic at Exploring Social Justice event

AU Library hosts event on the prevalence of fast food outlets in communities of color
Georgetown University professor Marcia Chatelain speaks about the prevalence of fast food restaurants in Black communities at Exploring Social Justice event.

Fast food restaurants, like McDonald’s, are common in predominantly Black communities due to their cultural and social connotations, along with their affordability, said Marcia Chatelain, a Georgetown University professor, at a virtual University Library event Tuesday.

The event, titled “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America,” is part of the University Library’s Exploring Social Justice Series.

Chatelain, a professor of history and African American studies, published a book in January, after which the event was named. The paperback version was recently released.

In her book, Chatelain writes a “smart and capacious history” of McDonald’s franchises in relation to the Black community, per The New York Times. One of the key objectives of the book, according to Chatelain, is “to tell the story of McDonald's origins from the perspective of race and policy in the United States.” 

“It talks about the ways that African American exclusion is central to the various structures and forces that create McDonald's as we understand it,” Chatelain said. “By using this lens of race in history, I was able to uncover layers to the early McDonald’s stories that have essentially been either conveniently forgotten or written out of the narrative of this business.” 

McDonald’s became synonymous with poorer segments of the population due to the franchise’s inexpensive, unhealthy menu options, Chatelain said. Other fast-food chains, such as Panera Bread and Chipotle, are marketed to “elites.”

“I talked about the growth of bedroom communities and all-white suburbs that are able to house and fuel the economic opportunities for upwardly mobile white families [who] will later go to McDonald's,” Chatelain said.

What many Americans do not know is that the popular chain is historically associated with Black people, as stereotypes evolved from the presence of fast food outlets in communities of color, she said.

During the 1990s, President Bill Clinton was often targeted for fitting traditional Black stereotypes, including enjoying fast food, and as a result, he was derided throughout the 1992 election and his presidency, she said.

“Bill Clinton could be seen stopping for a quick bite to eat at McDonald's became fodder for all sorts of jokes,” Chatelain said.

She said it became one of the most effective ways to tie Clinton to Black constituents, also noting his low-income background.

After the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, the local McDonald’s location remained open when many other businesses closed. Fast-food employees distributed milk to the protesters affected by tear gas while police officers changed shifts in the parking lot.

“Fast food is not just about our stomachs; it's about our hearts. It's about our nostalgia; it's about our memories,” Chatelain said. “And McDonald's has really effectively aligned itself with certain aspects of Black life and culture.”

zbell@theeagleonline.com, jyoung@theeagleonline.com

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