Inside McDonald’s Fraught History With Black America

Black customers and business owners have long loved the franchise, but does it love them back?

Patrick J. Sauer
Marker
Published in
8 min readFeb 6, 2020

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Photo: Mohd Samsul Mohd Said/Getty Images

InIn 1979, McDonald’s ran a print ad aimed squarely at the African American marketplace. The headline read “Do Your Dinnertimin’ at McDonald’s” and let black customers know “you don’t have to get dressed up” and “there’s no tipping.” The ad resurfaced a few years ago and took a proper fisking in the Atlantic and NPR’s Code Switch for its then-stereotypical, now-racist portrayal of black vernacular, attire, and eating and spending habits. It’s as the internet kids say, “problematic” at best when seen through 21st-century eyes.

Georgetown Professor of History and African American studies Marcia Chatelain agrees that modern analysis of the ad “offers valid concern about racial affectation in advertising,” but in her stellar, deeply researched new book, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, she also makes the case that there is more to the story, like the violent, racist intimidation at restaurants throughout the civil rights movement and the basic “historical anxieties” of “the black consumer and private-establishment dining.” The Green Book wasn’t meant to be a cloying Oscar winner, it was meant to save lives.

Personally, I will never look at McDonald’s in the same way after reading Franchise. Not in a good or bad way, but in a more complex one, especially the targeted advertising, which is readily available on YouTube. I went down a rabbit hole to see what’s changed over the years. Everything, and not a lot: Here’s an ’80s ad featuring some top-notch Double Dutching and another with a young Michael Jordan not eating the Egg McMuffin in his hand, and here’s one from the ’90s in which “Calvin” becomes a manager that seems more like an In Living Color outtake than an actual commercial right on up through a 2019 Super Bowl spot in which noted celebrity vegan J.B. Smoove endorsed Cheesy Bacon Fries.

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