Hold the pickles, no ketchup or mustard. Do fries go with that shake?
Double patty, and add bacon and fried onions. That’s how you like your burger. As for the chicken must have cheese, and there must be something salty-crunchy on the side, or it needs to be a complete meal. Yeah, Mom could cook, but not like this, and in the new book: White Burgers, Black Cash by Naa Oya A. Kwate, you’ll see why fast food was slow for Black communities.
While restaurants had been around before the turn of the last century, fast food establishments indeed took off in the early 1900s with the emergence of chains like White Castle, known for their iconic square burgers. Over time, KFC, Burger King, and McDonald’s became dominant players in the industry, each with its defining characteristics.
According to Kwate, the initial wave of fast-food restaurants excluded Black individuals, either explicitly or implicitly, by not building restaurants in their communities. While upscale establishments and affluent households employed Black servers, fast food was almost exclusively for White customers–from the kitchen to the table.
In the 1920s, franchisees began recognizing Black neighborhoods’ untapped potential for profit. Fast-food restaurants gradually started appearing in areas that were overlooked. Kwate suggests that this expansion might have been motivated by profit or to separate Black diners from White neighborhoods. The introduction of fast-food restaurants faced controversy, with citizens of both races considering them “a nuisance.” Additionally, some established restaurants ended up unintentionally located in Black neighborhoods due to “White flight.”
By the latter half of the 1960s, Black investors were finally allowed to become franchisees, while some White operators were required by their parent franchises to sell some of their sites to Black individuals. These changes brought Black operators closer to the desired equality, but the consequences were far-reaching. Studies from the turn of the century highlighted the health implications of residing near fast food establishments, with Black youth being particularly at risk.
Like a triple-patty super-sized sandwich, White Burgers, Black Cash is much heavier than you might expect at first glance. Author Naa Oyo A. Kwate dives deep into her subject, beginning years before the first White Castle opened – and that narrative includes neighborhood names, street names, and competitors’ locations, which likely won’t mean much to many readers. While the book includes pictures, their context sometimes needs to be improved. Nevertheless, it’s worth biting into this book due to its broader focus on racism during that era and its inclusion of relevant social history.
Readers who approach this book with patience and thoughtfulness will gain more from it than those seeking a quick read about fast food. White Burgers, Black Cash invites deeper contemplation, and you won’t need fries to accompany it.