Keeping Black people out, then down

Scholar addresses fast food's racial dynamics

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Naa Oyo A. Kwate is the author of White Burgers, Black Cash: Fast Food from Black Exclusion to Exploitation, published in April. She spoke to The Food Section about the racial dynamics of the quick-service sector, which is opening more and more outlets across the region. The number of fast-food restaurants nationwide now exceeds 200,000.


Hanna Raskin: I really enjoyed reading your book. But I should say you write that this book isn’t really about the South, since the early fast-food scene here was perverted by segregation. So, can you talk about why this story matters to everyone, even if they might live in Georgia?

Naa Oyo A. Kwate: Sure. This is a story about fast food’s racial and spatial transition, from focusing exclusively on whiteness, white neighborhoods, and white customers, to becoming disproportionately targeted to Black consumers. So, while the book homes in on Chicago, D.C., and New York, it’s a national story.

It is something that matters for Black communities everywhere in the country. The key point is that fast food has always had an antagonistic relationship with Black people.

HR: Right. So, let’s start at the very beginning. In fact, let’s start with the title. How do burgers figure into American eating?

NOAK:  Yeah, the burger. Now we think of it as the quintessential American food.

For example, for folks who saw The Menu: The movie is about people going to this exclusive high-end restaurant that serves intricate meals and exquisite ingredients. But then at one point, a cheeseburger is served, and it’s portrayed as this all-American pleasure. And we see that it has meaning for the customers, for the chef that’s preparing it. It has this iconic stature.

But in the early 1900s, it wasn’t anything fancy. It wasn’t special. It was like a meatball just smashed between some white bread. And if anything, people were distrustful of it, because meat had a lot of issues. Hamburgers were basically just roadside food that you took your chances with.

White Castle, which is the first burger joint, starts making burgers in 1921, at this moment where there’s a lot of concern about hamburgers being food for the poor. It’s only when you get to the second generation of fast food in the 1950s that [burgers] become fun food for kids. So, it’s gone through quite a lot of change over time.

HR: Relatedly, this makes absolutely no difference in the larger scheme of things, but it surprised me that you quoted both Muhammad Ali and James Baldwin as saying they wanted to get a hamburger and coffee. That is not a pairing most people order today.

NOAK:  That’s fair. Yeah.

HR: OK, so the bigger point is that despite what the Ray Kroc biopic may have implied, these early fast-food chains were all-white places. Do you want to talk about how they enforced whiteness?

NOAK:  There were two generations of fast food. The first is White Castle and its knockoffs; a drive-in restaurant in D.C. called Hot Shop; the Automat in New York and Philadelphia. These were all restaurants centered in white urban neighborhoods. They were serving white workers, they had white workers.

Then the second generation of fast food arises in the 1950s, in the suburbs. That’s McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and so on.

By virtue of being in the suburbs, they’re excluding Black folks, because of all the institutional policies and practices that were keeping Black people out of homes in the suburbs. Also in terms of marketing: They weren’t advertising to Black consumers, they took no note of them. They weren’t serving them.

HR: Why was there this emphasis on keeping these spaces white? I mean, obviously, racism. But you spelled out some of these racist notions behind this practice.

NOAK:  Right, right. With the first generation, the chains were very heavily focused on hygiene, and blackness was basically a threat to that: Blackness [was seen] as a contaminant. The whiteness that’s enveloping these restaurants, it’s literal: They’re white buildings that were supposed to indicate cleanliness and hygiene, but also racial purity.

At the burger chateaux—as I call them, because they’re all these little castles—you had this counter where the burgers are being prepared, right up front, and a bunch of stools where people are eating. [In To Live and Dine in Dixie], Angela J. Cooley talked about Southern lunch counters where Black women were in back preparing the food, and white women were up front at the counter.

The burger chateaux didn’t have that. There was no back. You couldn’t have Black men working, because you couldn’t have Black men up front, in charge, serving white men. Especially with these big plate glass windows, you can see everybody from the street.

When you get to the second generation, white people fled the city to have an exclusively white space. Which again, many institutional policies and practices made possible. Fast food—in catering to and uplifting and upholding this notion of white domestic bliss—meant you could not have Black people taking part.

HR: Can you talk briefly about when the chains decide they’re going to start marketing to Black communities?

NOAK:  There are two different things happening: There’s Black people as consumers, and there’s also Black people as operators, as franchisees [starting] in the late ‘60s.

A lot of that was the chains had outlets in urban neighborhoods that were becoming Black as white residents fled. Those chains basically found themselves in spaces that they hadn’t intended to serve. And in the context of all the urban rebellions that were happening, realizing that it was untenable to have white-owned outlets in Black spaces without any appreciable Black staff.

They began to bring in Black franchisees in an attempt to have a Black public face; to assuage any racial tensions. And the federal government gets involved in making it more possible for Black franchisees to get into the industry. The idea is there’s urban unrest around the country, [and] “Oh, maybe this thing to do is to give them some fried chicken.”

This is obviously not really addressing what the real life-and-death concerns were for Black communities. But the idea was increasing small businesses through franchising was going to tamp down on urban unrest.

So that’s the franchisees. But the consumers, the chains don’t even begin advertising to them until the early ‘70s. McDonald’s has its first Black-focused campaign in 1971.

Myriad other things over the decades kept compounding the move to Blackness. At first, it was trying to solve the social problem. By the 1970s, it’s, “This is a goldmine where we could really be extracting a lot more money than we have been.”

The turn to Blackness was about shoring up the industry’s bottom line. It was never meant to be something that would empower Black folks.

Now, to be sure, there were Black people who began as franchisors, trying to create their own companies that Black folks could participate in. Of course, they wanted a lucrative business for themselves, but they were also motivated by trying to provide service to the community.

But Black franchisees faced a lot of racism themselves. They got low-performing stores; they didn’t have the same kind of support from corporate. And they faced the other kinds of barriers that any Black businessperson might face, trying to get loans.

HR: It’s interesting that the plate glass windows you mentioned earlier went away too.

NOAK:  The buildings themselves just became very heavily defended, mundane with no landscaping, very drab and ugly. It really seems to indicate that this is not so much a space for you—the consumer, the Black resident in this neighborhood—to find a space of delight and delicious food, but it’s a place for corporate to withdraw money through this franchisee that’s paying royalties.

HR: And not just withdraw money, but also inject food that’s unhealthy. I thought it was really interesting how there’s a scapegoating of traditional homestyle cooking in Black communities, when in fact industrial fast food ought to bear some of the blame.

NOAK:  Regardless of what Black people eat, they face scrutiny and critique. Psyche Williams-Forson talks a lot about that in her new book, Eating While Black.

With fast food, once it became heavily prevalent in Black neighborhoods and Black folks ate what was nearby, there was all this public discourse around the moral failings of Black people: “Why they don’t eat better and control their diet and their gluttonousness?”

But one thing I’ve found to be true is that there’s never a point in history where Black people were clamoring for fast food. You just don’t see it. If anything, the industry was stymied by the fact that even into the ’70s, as they’re developing these campaigns, Black folks weren’t even eating that much fast food. It was more like a snack while you’re on the move.

The industry was trying to keep increasing visits, and the amount spent per check, and building all these outlets. But there isn’t this demand. People assume that’s why fast food is so dense in Black neighborhoods. Like, “Oh, well if they’re there, then it must be because the people want it.” That’s not true. There’s a total mismatch.

HR: What else do you think would either upend people’s assumptions or came as a surprise to you?

NOAK:  One thing that surprised me was just how many symbolic meanings fast food has held. It’s the closest thing we have to a national meal. But on the other hand, it’s also gauche and anachronistic, with all these nutritional liabilities and homogenized production.

I didn’t necessarily expect a linear story, but it was interesting to see that it wasn’t that fast food went from excluding Black people on Monday to targeting them on Wednesday. There was a lot of push and pull.

HR: Does it feel like there’s any possibility for improvement?

NOAK:  It’s interesting. I’m not sure where fast food is going to go. You could perhaps consider Shake Shack as third generation fast food, where they’re a nostalgic look back at a previous iteration now seen as gauche.

Shake Shack is not, for example, the first generation of fast food, [offering] quick fuel for the working man. It’s almost like a foodie kind of place to eat. And it’s not inexpensive. It caters to white urban affluence and so on. But it does seem like, yes, there will be continuing iterations, which may not necessarily be new.

HR:  You said you’re in Chicago now. I remember going to Ed Debevic’s in the 1980s.

NOAK:  Yes, yes, yes!

HR: I mean, there is so much whiteness tied up in that nostalgia. It feels like the idea is, “Well, they took the chains we had, so let’s start anew and make it all white again.”

NOAK: That’s right. Yep.

HR: Interesting. Alright, what else do you want folks to know before they start your book, or what do you want them to go away with after they finish your book?

NOAK:  Folks are going to be surprised by the way fast food has been used and deployed. [It’s] very much a reflection of the kinds of inequities and narratives, aspirational and otherwise, that the country runs on. It really throws into bold relief the issues that are at the heart of what we grapple with as Americans.

To use Ella Baker‘s statement, “It’s bigger than a burger.” Yeah, it’s about food, but it’s about a lot more than that. When you take a close look, it’s like, “Wow, there’s actually a lot happening in here.”

HR: I’m sure people ask you this all the time, but do you eat fast food?

NOAK:  Actually, this is the first time someone’s asked that.

I don’t really. Some of it’s just because A, I’m vegan, and B, I’m older. Now, had you asked me this in high school, where I was known to really put away Wendy’s in particular, yeah. But now, no, I don’t.


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