Say the name McDonald’s, and what comes to mind? Tasty hamburgers or hardened arteries? Entry-level jobs or dead-end McJobs? Responsive community outreach or mercenary corporate power?...Chatelain has written a smart and capacious history suggesting that McDonald’s should summon all of those thoughts, and then some ... Chatelain is less accusatory and more circumspect. Throughout this impressively judicious book, she is attuned to the circumstances that encouraged increasingly intricate ties between McDonald’s and black communities across the country. This isn’t just a story of exploitation or, conversely, empowerment; it’s a cautionary tale about relying on the private sector to provide what the public needs, and how promises of real economic development invariably come up short ... a serious work of history, and Chatelain has taken care to interview the surviving principals involved, but she also includes some lighter details to round out her picture ... Chatelain writes very little about the food itself, but when she does, she’s resolutely nonjudgmental about why people eat it...Her sense of perspective gives this important book an empathetic core as well as analytical breadth, as she draws a crucial distinction between individuals actors, who often get subjected to so much scrutiny and second-guessing, and larger systems, which rarely get subjected to enough.
This might sound like a niche tale about food deserts and the prevalence of fast food in predominantly black neighborhoods. But it is actually a book of big, sweeping ideas that goes far in portraying fast-food restaurants as yet another burden on black America. Probably too far ... In her telling, fast-food corporations, shortsighted civil rights leaders, politicians, the government and unwitting black capitalists conspired to saturate black communities with fast food, imperiling black health. That is certainly one take. Maybe the problem, though, is not the presence of too many fast-food restaurants in black communities but the absence of so many other businesses and institutions.
The relationship between McDonald’s, the undisputed champion in the fast food realm, and Black America has been complicated, even fraught. The company’s marketing and outreach efforts have presented its business as responsive to the needs of Black communities contending with generational poverty and political disenfranchisement. Chatelain undercuts this narrative, however, by contextualizing, from an arguably Marxist perspective, the historical advantages that enabled McDonald’s to rise above the competition, the charges of racist practices and exploitation that led Black communities to protest its presence in their neighborhoods, and its multigenerational campaign to repair its image, particularly in promoting Black franchises and supporting Black franchisees ... Chatelain doesn’t flinch from addressing these difficult questions, and readers will be inspired to rethink the role of capitalism in black empowerment.