Chapter 7: The Miracle of the Golden Arches

“What do your research and scholarship—RIGHT NOW—challenge and remake? What do your institutional practices—RIGHT NOW—challenge and remake?”
At the October 2019 Conference on Community Writing in Philadelphia, an event that brings together teachers, scholars, artists, activists and community organizers, Carmen Kynard asked the above questions in “All I Need is One Mic”: A Black Feminist Community Meditation on the Work, the Job, and the Hustle (and Why So Many Y’all Confuse this Stuff). At this conference focused on writing for education, personal revelation, public dialogue, and anti-racist pedagogy, Kynard called attention to Atatiana Jefferson, a 28-year-old pre-med student and Black woman shot and killed by police officers while in her own home. Kynard posed another question that she had recently asked her graduate students: “What in the institution’s existing curriculum … contextualizes the life and death of Atatiana Jefferson?”

In Chapter 7 of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, Marcia Chatelain contextualizes fast food histories through stories of Black lives and civic action. She opens the chapter with the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which took place after another example of injustice for Black communities: the Rodney King police brutality case. The riots, she shares, were not only about the horrific beating of King by the police. A week before the riots, a California Court of Appeals upheld no jail time for the convenience store owner who shot and killed Latasha Harlins, a Black teenager. “These moments aggravated… racial and economic tensions” (Chatelain 271), and by the time the riots concluded, there had been at least 58 deaths and 2,400 injuries.

Chatelain provides additional context on the aftermath of the riots that still resonates in the news today:

When Los Angeles finally quieted down, some op-eds in national newspapers and talking heads on cable news programs seemed to mourn the loss of commerce more than the loss of life (Chatelain 272).

Currently, the same op-eds in national newspapers and talking heads on cable news programs are debating between lives or the economy amid the COVID-19 global pandemic. The number of U.S. deaths from COVID-19 recently surpassed 80,000, but at the same time, government officials are arguing for the country to “reopen,” as many locations are in a shutdown mode to contain the number of cases and fatalities. Meanwhile, states with greater economic inequality are more likely to see cases and fatalities. Data also reveals that the “latest available COVID-19 mortality rate for Black Americans is 2.3 times higher than the rate for Asians and Latinos, and 2.6 times higher than the rate for Whites.” 

After the 1992 Los Angeles riots, representatives from McDonald’s theorized that violence had not reached them due to their “deep connection with black consumers” (Chatelain 271) and their perceived fight against economic and racial inequality, as the franchises in the area were “black-owned” (273) and donated generously to the community and causes. McDonald’s not being touched during the riots was referred to as the Miracle of the Golden Arches.

The relationships between McDonald’s and local communities was still fraught with complications, and miracles didn’t always lend themselves to the other fast food companies and franchisees that Chatelain explores in the chapter. Ted Holmes’ Chicken George, for example, was a success from the 1979 to late 1980s, due largely to Holmes’ research and initiatives: authentic food, a focused market, setting an accessible entry fee to franchise his restaurant. Eventually, however, “Chicken George’s early success pushed major fast food restaurants to think about its appeal to African Americans, and then they were able to use their massive resources to overtake Chicken George” (Chatelain 277).

One of the Chicken George restaurants, 1983.

Meanwhile, fast food mogul La-Van Hawkins recognized that fast food franchising through business like Pizza Hut, KFC, and Burger King offered opportunities for rapid growth, and he “moved from city to city, franchise to franchise, offering some of the most blighted black and brown corners of America unparalleled opportunities for jobs and advancement in the franchise system” throughout the 1990s (Chatelain 283). Unfortunately, Hawkins often left these corners of America in financial trouble, and he later paid restitution and spent time in jail for failing to pay certain taxes and debtors. His obituary in one Detroit paper referred to him as a “controversial figure,” someone known for scandal but also known for being a job provider who empowered people.

Chatelain concludes this chapter by considering food deserts, where healthy and affordable food choices are limited, sharing how these add to inequality. She explains that problems with fast food in many urban environments were often linked to limited choices. She ends the chapter with recent examples of “healthy” fast food that is attempting to make a mark in urban environments, such as LocoL. Her examples throughout the chapter are fascinating and engaging, and near the end of the chapter, she makes a particularly important point:

The label ‘black-owned’ obscures the multiple systems that are not only outside of the hands of people of color, but will never truly be accessible under capitalism (Chatelain 303).

It’s a needed context as scholars, researchers, activists, and many others aim to challenge and remake systems of inequity.