A recent article in the Atlanta Post, “How Fast Food Companies ‘Super-Size’ African Americans,” features comments by Andrea Freeman, a teaching fellow at California Western School of Law (and, it must be admitted, a former student of mine) who argues that the ubiquity of fast food restaurants in predominantly minority neighborhoods is the flip side of so-called “food deserts” in those same neighborhoods. Together, the underprovision of healthy food and the overprovision of cheap but toxic food contribute to the astronomical rates of diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses in African American communities. The article, which chronicles the close relationship between chains like McDonald’s and black communities, got me musing on the broader relationship between African American identity and corporate brands.
In her terrific 1993 book “I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African American Culture,” Patricia Turner examined the prevalence of folk conspiracy theories in African American communities. Occasionally, for no apparent reason, an unfounded rumor spreads in black communities that certain companies are associated with racist, even genocidal acts. (A famous example, which Turner discusses in her book, is the rumor – false — that Church’s Fried Chicken is owned by the Ku Klux Klan.) There’s a flip side to this, apparently: brand loyalty that may persist even at the cost of harm to black communities.
In a fascinating 2001 article in American Behavioral Scientist, for instance, Sheila Ards and Samuel Myers identified Sears as a brand to which black people have been loyal despite the ruinous interest rates that Sears charges on its credit cards. (My parents had total faith in the Sears brand.) Is this true for other brands? To what extent do black people not only have a brand loyalty but a cultural investment in brands such as KFC, Burger King, and Chick-fil-A (despite Chick-fil-A’s dubious politics; see this recent article in the New York Times)? The loyalty may be mutual, moreover: as the Atlanta Post article notes, McDonald’s frequently features African American customers in its ads, cognizant of the fact that African Americans produce 17-18% of its sales. Yet loyalty to Sears threatens black people’s financial health, and loyalty to fast food brands threatens our physical health.
If love and hatred for certain brands is understood within African American communities is in fact experienced as a “black thing,” what explains it? Turner explains the seemingly arbitrary demonization of certain brands in the black community as a displaced response to all-too-real racist incidents, such as the use of poor black people as medical subjects without their consent. Similarly, Freeman argues that the apparently unhealthy and arbitrary love of black people for fast food is not unreasoning. The Atlanta Post notes that McDonald’s employs thousands of black workers, and has helped create “hundreds of black millionaires.” Freeman points out in her 2007 California Law Review article, “Fast Food Oppression,” that fast food chains (and other corporate chains, such as Holiday Inn) also offered to black people in the post-World War II generation the promise of a haven from racial discrimination in public accommodations. For generations black people could not travel freely in the United States without the fear of harassment, humiliation, confrontation, and even physical assault or death. (This was notoriously true in the South under Jim Crow, but as sociologist James Loewen, the author of Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, makes clear, it was also true throughout the Midwest.) You could never be sure whether it was safe to walk into a restaurant or a motel lobby. Mom ‘n’ pop establishments were most likely to be exempt from the public accommodations regulations in Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as well as the most likely to refuse you service or offer verbal assaults and harassment in order to protect their reputations in the white community. In this environment of hostility and uncertainty, the chains offered some semblance, at least, of safety and security: you knew what to expect from McDonald’s and Burger King, and what to expect from Holiday Inn and Howard Johnson’s. At the very least, if you were harassed, mistreated, or refused service, there was a national structure to which you could complain and the possibility of some national media coverage and embarrassment, not to mention a lawsuit. (See, for example, the Denny’s settlement.) Today, the Atlanta Post article suggests, fast food chains offer a different kind of safety: a “hangout for kids without homes, a place where they can be relatively safe.”
The Atlanta Post article concludes with the need to restructure our social environment so that individuals are guided toward making healthier choices. I’m not quarreling with the need to stop eating toxic food, and the need to stop claiming the right to eat food that contributes to our morbidity and mortality as an essential lineament of liberty. But it would be nice if more of us were aware of the ironies at the intersection of collective identities and markets. Just as the paranoid really do have enemies, sometimes group loyalty to a brand has a much richer and more complex story behind it than naive susceptibility to marketing campaigns.