My last post was a review of a comedic look at the world of hot dogs. Today it’s a review of White Burgers, Black Cash: Fast Food from Black Exclusion to Exploitation. This book, by Naa Oyo A. Kwate is an in-depth, scholarly look at the ways race impacted the development of fast food restaurants in the United States.
According to the back flyleaf, this is Kwate’s second book on the subject. Her first is entitled Burgers in Blackface: Anti-Black restaurants Then and Now(Minnesota 2019). It seems from this review, that her first book lays the groundwork for White Burgers, Black Cash.
The burgers in the title are shorthand for fast food. While focusing mainly on burger restaurants, Kwate delves into the history of fried chicken restaurants and others.
White Burgers, Black Cash, Compelling read
Kwate has divided her work into three parts:
- White Utopias
- Racial Turnover
- Black Catastrophe
Kwate also divides the emergence of fast food restaurants into two eras. First generation restaurants, such as White Castle or White Tower, which basically run up until 1950. Most of these restaurants are gone from today’s landscape or operate in a very limited space. The second generation restaurants, such as McDonalds or KFC, are the ones that dominate the fast food scene today.
The first generation fast food places were designed to evoke whiteness. They were places where black people simply weren’t welcome. A quote from an employee of Hot Shoppes, an early fast food restaurant sums this attitude up quite succinctly:
Naturally we do not wish to embarrass our guests.Our policies are dictated by the customs in the area.page 6
Pages 234-35 tell the story of how Popeye’s Chicken got it’s name. It is an eye-opening account of a white man silently mocking black culture. Then he turns around and uses that mockery as part of his strategy to sell fast food to black communities.
In the introduction Kwate writes about how fast food is often consider anti-black, because of the way if results in poor health results for the black community. Kwate thesis is that anti-blackness has always been built into fast food. However, the book does not avoid the questions of health.
Instead Kwate shows how the issues of fast and health are tied up in ideas of blackness. One idea that pops up throughout the book is the idea of a monolithic Black community. Check the index on the history of fast food advertising. You’ll find plenty of examples of the Black consumer being treated as a trope rather than an individual consumer with complex and varying desires.
Government help and hindrance
Another aspect that runs throughout the book is the way that geography played such a role in the development of fast food restaurants. From their original locations in whites-only communities, or sundown towns(16), to their current state as being present in black communities at a much higher rate than in white communities(xvi).
Which leads to looking at the role of government or social policy in helping/hindering to create better food options for Black people. It’s here that Kwate puts a great deal of effort into demonstrating the complex and complicate roles that Black leaders have played in these issues.
The place of fast food in Black communities cannot be disentangled from practices such as urban renewal. Many of the programs that were designed to supposedly bring better conditions to Black neighbourhoods, in fact made life unaffordable for the people already living there, thereby creating more poverty than was eliminated.
Programs intended to give Black entrepreneurs a leg up in the fast food business, often weighted them down with great expenses and limited resources. As a result the giant corporations gained a great deal of positive PR, without making any fundamental change in their practices.
This then allows the corporations to flood Black communities with franchises. These franchises often take far more out of the communities than they put in. Leaving the communities worse off than before the fast food joints arrived. This is the ongoing problem that needs resolving.
White Burgers, Black Cash is an academic inquiry into the history of fast food. Despite the limitations laid out by Kwate in the introduction it contains an in-depth study of the industry. Stylistically it reminds me a little of Janis Thiessen’s Snacks: A Canadian Food History. In addition to statistical analyses, and documentation the reader gets a lot of stories that put flesh on the abstract ideas.
White Burgers, Black Cash is a fascinating and informative look at the fast food industry. It is well worth picking up. This is a book to come back to time and again as a reference and a touchstone.