A Side of Franchise

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Our show is all about recognizing the fascinating stories behind mundane things, and I can think of nothing more mundane than seeing a McDonald’s on nearly every corner.

Marcia Chatelain:
For us today because fast food is so readily available, we often mark it as something that is unspecial.

Roman Mars:
That’s Marcia Chatelain. She’s the author of the book, “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America.”

Marcia Chatelain:
But for African-Americans, if you consider in the 1970s, who have only been federally protected in a public accommodation like a restaurant for maybe five, ten years, going to McDonald’s is actually a really big deal.

Roman Mars:
So when I started reading Dr. Chatelain’s book, I think I was expecting kind of a takedown of McDonald’s. Kind of like “Fast Food Nation,” just knives out, talking about all the ways that fast food companies abuse workers and animals and the planet. But this book is really complicated. It looks at the somewhat bizarre but incredibly powerful marriage between a fast-food behemoth and the fight for civil rights.

Marcia Chatelain:
I remember when I was on my book tour, I met a woman who said she remembers going to McDonald’s for the first time and getting ice cream because she had grown up in the “Jim Crow South,” and they never went to an ice cream parlor because there was a “colored only” and “whites only” counter and her grandmother wouldn’t let her go, and so they would make ice cream at home and she remembers going to get ice cream. I think that for people who were so separated from those experiences and from the pleasure of going out and eating and enjoying themselves, having McDonald’s as this accessible place and having advertisement that shows that you are welcome was a really, really big deal, and it still sticks with a lot of people of that generation.

Roman Mars:
My discussion with Marcia Chatelain starts in 1968, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Marcia Chatelain:
McDonald joins the legions of businesses that are trying to find a way to capitalize on this urban crisis moment where there’s destruction on the streets after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Some white franchise owners who are doing business in predominantly Black neighborhoods wanted out. They were concerned about future property damage, other uprisings, and so in vacating their stores, McDonald’s filled those gaps with African-American franchisees who were stepping into business for the first time. Most of us think about “white flight” in the context of housing and the loss of tax revenue for schools. But I think that we also have to think about economic white flight. What does it mean for white business owners to shutter their businesses, move to the suburbs, and to end their main street presence? Then there were these calls for using Black economic power under the umbrella of Black capitalism to rebuild and reimagine Black communities.

Roman Mars:
Can you give me the grand unified theory of Black capitalism? What is it supposed to do? What is it supposed to accomplish?

Marcia Chatelain:
So Black capitalism is this idea that in the absence of full political and social rights, that if African-Americans develop a strong economic base and economic presence, that this can fill the gaps. And it doesn’t work ever.

Roman Mars:
Spoiler alert.

Marcia Chatelain:
Hot take alert folks, it does not work. So McDonald’s is there at the forefront of capitalizing on federal programs that are supposed to support Black business ownership and having this business model that they realize very quickly can actually thrive in the inner city.

Roman Mars:
Right. This is all hinged on the idea of the franchise. So could you talk about how franchising and Black capitalism work together?

Marcia Chatelain:
So franchising, as I described in the book, in Freudian terms, is the idea that a parent company makes all the rules, but the children earn all the money. So the franchise model is so American because it says you don’t need a fancy degree and you don’t need to have a lot of business knowledge, but you have to have the ability to be compliant, follow the rule book, pay your fees, and then you can have your own business. So it’s this idea of the easiest way to become an entrepreneur or business owner. The reality is, is that franchising is predicated on you the franchisee assuming a lot of liability. For the people who are able to access these programs and the funds and the loans, they’re getting to access some of the most iconic brands, some of the most established businesses, and it’s supposed to be the easy way. But because of the dynamics of race in capitalism, it’s never quite that easy.

Roman Mars:
One of the confusing aspects of franchising is that it is unclear – I mean, at least it’s unclear to me – who actually owns the shop.

Marcia Chatelain:
Well, the initial idea of the McDonald’s franchise was that it was a person who owned the store and was there all the time. So in the early days, you would know who your local franchise owner was and that person would be at the (inaudible) club. There a person who’s sponsoring little league, that this was this like very local thing. Then slowly but surely in order for people to really make money in the system, they start owning multiple franchises and their portfolio is filled with fast food outlets. But for African-Americans, again, because of racial wealth gaps, they were less likely to own multiple stores. They’re also likely to do business in predominantly Black areas.

Marcia Chatelain:
So when I was touring the book, sometimes white audience members would say like, “How am I supposed to know who owns my franchise? That’s kind of weird.” Then every Black person I would see would be like, “Yeah, I totally know the guy who franchised the McDonald’s,” right? Because he’s everywhere. He’s on the radio telling you to vote, telling you to fill out your census. He’s given people jobs at the job fair. This person is such a figure and I think that that’s when it gets super murky because throughout the book, people are wondering if I go to a Black franchised McDonald’s, am I supporting a Black business? To what extent is it really a Black business? It’s actually really hard to answer.

Roman Mars:
Well, what is obvious in the exploration of your book is that Black capitalism and some of the responsibilities that McDonald’s would take on were things that the government was failing at. Could you talk a little bit about that? Because a lot of what’s complicated about this relationship is not the failure of McDonald’s to serve the Black community or Black business owners. It’s that they’re forced to serve the community and Black business owners because other structures are failing.

Marcia Chatelain:
Right. So like the Black business owner has historically been the unelected official of Black America wherever it is residing, and the franchise owner takes up that role. Initially, when I thought about how would I describe this book in one sentence, it was how McDonald’s are placed to state in Black America, in the sense that the McDonald’s is the place where a senior citizen can hang out with friends. It is the place that is underwriting the cultural and athletic events at the local school. It’s the place where the first job training program happens, and it’s the affiliation of these Black franchise owners into a national organization that’s allowing health screenings to happen in some places.

Marcia Chatelain:
A lot of the literature on Black capitalism often frames it as this great failure that like in the ’70s, people had this wild idea that you could do these things and everything failed. But I argue that it was so successful that we don’t even see its markings, that we don’t point to the expansion of fast food as the success of Black capitalism, but that’s exactly what that’s part of.

Roman Mars:
Right. So Black capitalism was a success in that it created more successful McDonald’s franchises and those places became defacto hubs for the Black community, but it still failed in the broad sense for most African-Americans and that it didn’t come close to making up for being shut out of political power or economic equality. So let’s go back in time when the promise of Black capitalism was still a bit more propitious and McDonald’s was becoming intertwined with Black communities. So in Los Angeles, in the 1970s, McDonald’s had dozens of Black franchise owners, including this man named Charles Griffis, but they ended up in a lawsuit with Griffis. What happened there?

Marcia Chatelain:
Yeah. So it’s so interesting to hear people talk about African-Americans and franchising because they use a lot of the language that people have come to understand around housing discrimination. So they talk about discrimination in lending, access to capital, and then they talk about redlining and they claim that McDonald’s keeps two sets of lists of potential franchise locations, that whites go to white neighborhoods and Black people are confined to Black neighborhoods. They talk about how if you are Black and you move into a predominantly white territory, the white franchise owners come together to keep you out, and so these allegations are being made throughout the late ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, and Charles Griffis is this franchise owner who’s so ready for prime-time that the great tragedy of his story is that he didn’t have Twitter in order for him to try to get under MacDonald’s skin.

Marcia Chatelain:
So in a nutshell, his wife tries to franchise a Popeye’s. McDonald’s says that that is a breach that family members of a McDonald’s franchise owner can’t go into business with a competitor. So he launches back and says, “Actually, while you’re at it, why can’t we talk about this racial discrimination that I’m experiencing, that I can not get restaurants outside of South Los Angeles. I absorb higher security costs as a result of the neighborhood that I’m in and I want a piece of the action somewhere else.” McDonald’s retorts like, “Be grateful. Look what I have given you.” Charles Griffis is always on time. He’s like, “You say you want me to be in my community. I’m a millionaire. I live in Bel Air. Why can’t I be in that community as a business owner?”

Marcia Chatelain:
They go back and forth and it gets picked up by the New York Times. But I think at the heart of it is this question of what does an opportunity really look like or mean. I think for African-Americans who had been shut out of the possibility of this business structure, there was an expectation from the corporate parent that they would just always be grateful. In this exchange, you also realize that by confining the places where African-Americans can do business, you just exacerbate some of the issues of inequality that people thought business ownership would actually fix.

Roman Mars:
So this conflict boils up where they’re in a little bit of a war with each other. So what ended up happening to Charles Griffis?

Marcia Chatelain:
Well, Charles Griffis, he gets the NAACP involved and the Los Angeles chapter actually initiates a selective boycott, which again is bananas because they have to invite people to boycott McDonald’s, but not the Black ones. You know which one of those are, they’re just in Black neighborhoods and that’s the point of this boycott. Everyone’s like, “What? What’s going on?” But it’s kind of like it makes sense, but it makes no sense. So eventually their case gets settled. McDonald’s claims that they did not pay Griffis a cent for his ridiculous claims about racism. He gets bought out and he later re-establishes himself in a business called “Chicken Charlie’s,” which he says he has gotten away from franchising, which is the white man’s game and now he’s doing something authentically Black.

Marcia Chatelain:
The implication for this conflict, I think, is more interesting because the NAACP enters into negotiations with McDonald’s and this is a strategy they used throughout the ’80s with corporations, that there’s a claim of racism, there’s some type of selective buying campaign or a boycott, and then they come to the table and it includes charitable donations. It includes sponsoring NAACP programs.

[NEWS REPORT:15 AREA STUDENTS JUST WEEKS AWAY FROM HEADING OFF TO COLLEGE WERE AWARDED SCHOLARSHIPS EARLIER TONIGHT, THANKS IN PART TO A PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN THE NAACP AND MCDONALD’S. THIS MARKS THE 10TH YEAR OF THE TWO OF PARTNER TO PROVIDE JEFFERSON COUNTY STUDENTS WITH OPPORTUNITIES FOR HIGHER EDUCATION.]

Marcia Chatelain:
Then it opens up more white-collar jobs to African-Americans. So it never really settles the issue of redlining and it never really goes deep into that, but it creates this context that the remedy for racial inequality is opportunity and essentially reliving that moment over and over again today.

Roman Mars:
So McDonald’s was doing this work behind the scenes with franchisees, but it also was doing these massive ad campaigns aimed at African-Americans. So how did McDonald’s try to appeal to Black customers?

Marcia Chatelain:
So the idea that a big company markets to African-Americans is a pretty old concept that really took shape around the Great Migration, where you have a mass migration of Black people from the South who are moving to Northern cities and have more commercial choices, but things take a more ridiculous turn, if you will, in the 1960s where these market research firms, some Black-owned, are trying to do really tailored marketing to African-American. So they’re not just coloring the faces of models to make them Black or putting African-American models in the same types of print ads that white models would be in. They are trying to speak directly to that consumer market. So in the 1960s, African-American franchise owners convinced McDonald’s to retain the services of Burrell Communications, which is one of the most important African-American advertising firms of the period and up to today, and so they start marketing to African-Americans.

[MCDONALD’S AD: BREAKFAST AT MCDONALD’S, SUITS MY FAMILY….]

Marcia Chatelain:
These ads are very of their time. There are Afros, there are Dashikis, there’s dropped Gs, there’s a lot of being cool. It is painful to look at in hindsight, but I do think that there is value to what this kind of marketing is animating for Black consumers.

Roman Mars:
So McDonald’s used to run these ads staring a character named Calvin, and in the ads, Calvin is this young Black man who gets a job at McDonald’s and basically turns his life around and these were everywhere on TV. Let’s listen to one.

[HEY, ISN’T THAT CALVIN?]

[I HAVEN’T SEEN HIM FOR A WHILE.]

[I WONDER WHERE HE’S HEADING.]

[I HEARD HE GOT A JOB.]

[IT’S ABOUT TIME HE GOT HIMSELF TOGETHER.]

[NOW THAT YOU’VE MENTIONED IT, THERE IS SOMETHING DIFFERENT ABOUT HIM.]

[JUST GOES TO SHOW YOU CAN’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER.]

[LOOKS LIKE RESPONSIBILITY’S BEEN GOOD FOR HIM. I WONDER WHERE HE’S WORKING.

[CALVIN: WELCOME TO MCDONALD’S, MAY I HELP YOU?]

Marcia Chatelain:
Oh, Calvin.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. Calvin, indeed. That’s almost like a short film devoted to Black capitalism.

Marcia Chatelain:
It has many parts too.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. It keeps developing. I mean, he’s a young teen in this incarnation and then he gets older and then he gets fancy clothes later on.

[MEET THE NEWEST MEMBER OF OUR MANAGEMENT TEAM, CALVIN.]

[CONGRATULATIONS!!!]

[CALVIN: YES, I’M PART OF THE MANAGEMENT TEAM NOW, MAMA.]

[OH, BABY. I’M SO PROUD OF YOU.]

Roman Mars:
The kids on the stoop are envious of the money he earns. So talk to me about Calvin and what you think of when you see these ads.

Marcia Chatelain:
So Calvin is a creation of some market research about a concern that fast-food jobs are no longer cool. So the Calvin campaign was to make working at McDonald’s something that teens wanted to do, but it’s also a call back to some of the representations of African-American teenagers that were negative because part of the conceit of the Calvin ad is you think he’s like a bad kid from the street, but McDonald’s gives him so much discipline because they give him a job and he becomes a fixture in his community. This kind of ad, I think, straddles this transition from the ads in the late ’60s and ’70s – were working-class people, it was about being cool, it was hanging out. Then it transitioned into the ’80s, which is what I call the Cosby turn, more middle-class families and a little bit more aspirational in its tone.

[MCDONALD’S AD: YOU DESERVE A BREAK TODAY, YEAH, SO GET UP AND GET AWAY TO MCDONALD’S]

Marcia Chatelain:
Then in the late ’80s, early ’90s, using the tropes of kind of rap culture or the street culture to promote McDonald’s. So that’s the introduction of rap music.

[MCDONALD’S AD: THE NEW DOLLAR MENU AT BREAKFAST IS IMPRESSIVE. I CAN BE SELECTIVE. I’M EGGING IT.]

Marcia Chatelain:
The thing I find hilarious about this is that Calvin is in a block in Harlem and the stoop his friends hang out on is now $10 million and has been in “House Beautiful.” But at the time it was supposed to indicate working-class communities. It’s this idea that McDonald’s isn’t just a presence in your community, in that it provides cheap food fast, but it has this effect on young people, young people that you would otherwise be afraid of and McDonald’s can kind of soothe your anxieties about them.

Roman Mars:
I do want to not judge it too harshly in today’s mores and sort of treat it as it was, but there’s a line that’s just like “he isn’t what you’d think,” you know, it’s kind of stated and you’re like, “I don’t think anything. I’ve seen him for 10 seconds.”

Marcia Chatelain:
Yeah. Who’s the what, who’s the you?

Roman Mars:
Yeah, exactly.

Marcia Chatelain:
These words are doing quite a bit, but also it was this idea that fast-food jobs are not dead-end jobs, and I think that criticism that emerges during that period is also being addressed here. I mean, so many things are happening in these ads, but they’re also saying it’s a cool place to work. It’s a good place to work. It’s not dead-end, and that for African-Americans, it can leverage them. In one of the final ads, he starts musing about one day becoming a franchise owner. It’s like Calvin has done the full capitalism loop.

[FOR REAL?]

[CALVIN!?]

[CALVIN WHO USED TO HANG OUT ON THE CORNER?]

[SO YOU OWN MCDONALD’S.]

[NO, NOT YET.]

Roman Mars:
So in addition to ads speaking to the values of being part of the McDonald’s family, there was also the incorporation of Black culture into McDonald’s ads, which brings us to the Double Dutch ad.

[MCDONALD’S AD: BIG MAC, FILET O FISH, QUARTER POUNDER, FRENCH FRIES, DIET COKE, THICK SHAKES, SUNDAES, APPLE PIES.]

Marcia Chatelain:
It’s this really kind of lovely, modest neighborhood. Everyone has a well-kept front yard and a group of people – related, maybe fictive kin – are watching these girls do Double Dutch and they’re just so good in terms of the athleticism and then they’re just having so much fun. I remember ads like that being really distinctive in that they’re showing African-American culture that was like visible to me. This could be my sister and her older friends doing Double Dutch, not as artfully, but doing Double Dutch, nonetheless. Those commercials were not only like a marketing strategy. They were also part of McDonald’s underwriting a Double Dutch league that would travel around the country that had its origins in keeping kids off the street and out of trouble.

Marcia Chatelain:
In watching so many of these ads, I started to really think about not only the politics of representation and what it means for African-Americans to see themselves on television after having long histories of exclusion from the marketplace, but just the number of people who are paid, the number of Black creatives who are able to get jobs as a result of these huge marketing shifts. I think it’s important to acknowledge that even as I’m so critical and awful about the whole thing. Even though I’m the worst.

Roman Mars:
Just a killjoy. I think it’s easy to dismiss this sort of outreach in terms of marketing to the Black community as crass and commercial, but McDonald’s also was involved in establishing MLK’s birthday as a holiday.

[MCDONALD’S AD: EQUALITY. MCDONALD’S JOINS THE NATION IN CELEBRATING THE LEGACY OF DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.]

Marcia Chatelain:
Well, they were very early among the corporations that said MLK is something that we want to do because before Martin Luther King became this “warm, fuzzy” that people loved, that was a process. The first step in that was legitimating and essentially routinizing the MLK holiday. So after it’s passed in ’83, a lot of people are kind of not sure if this is something they want to get behind. There was a lot of conversation in Congress if Frederick Douglass should have a holiday because he was a more honorable American.

Marcia Chatelain:
So the process of keeping the MLK holiday as a space in which to celebrate African-Americans, it needed help and McDonald’s African-American franchise owners really led the way in creating King ephemera, of underwriting some of the big parades and the celebrations. And corporate was behind it because I think that they had grafted so much of their entry into Black America onto the event of King’s assassination, and they were able to really parlay the King holiday into something accessible to a large audience. So I think that that kind of cultural work is, again, something that is so important to us because the way that the King holiday has been so sanitized and de-politicized, it’s hard to imagine a world in which a corporation sponsoring it would actually be a risky move.

Roman Mars:
So let’s move forward to the 1990s. So after the uprising, following the beating of Rodney King in 1992, the CEO of McDonald’s said that the restaurants in Los Angeles had been spared from looting and property damage and he said this was because of how McDonald’s adopted it’s “enlightened social policies more than three decades ago”. So does that ring true to you?

Marcia Chatelain:
It’s such a weird thing to say. This was one of the early pieces of research that I found in working on this project and I was obsessed with this idea. The claim is so outrageous to me and so wildly inappropriate that I went to the archives of the University of Southern California that had all of the kind of commissioned reports about the uprising to try to disprove it. There’s a lot of speculative stuff that I can get into, but the point is is that some McDonald’s were targeted and one McDonald’s was a staging area for the National Guard. What I realized is it didn’t actually matter if this was true. It was the fact that McDonald’s had positioned itself after ’68 up into 1992 as being a member of Black America, that people believed it and they celebrated it. I have heard this story from Black franchise owners. I’ve heard this from business professors. It is in those case studies about corporate social responsibility. This narrative is so powerful.

Roman Mars:
During the recent protests, McDonald’s certainly hasn’t been hailed as a civil rights champion. Actually, at one of the McDonald’s here in Oakland, there’s been a strike going on over the safety conditions during the pandemic.

[SO A FEW DAYS AGO, MCDONALD’S HAD THE AUDACITY TO PUT OUT A STATEMENT SAYING, “YOU’RE ONE OF US.” MCDONALD’S, BILLION-DOLLAR BUSINESS IS CLUELESS THAT THE BROWN AND BLACK PEOPLE THAT IT HIRES, IT DOES NOT RESPECT THEIR BASIC RIGHTS.]

Roman Mars:
Our producer, Emmett FitzGerald, went down to a protest outside that McDonald’s and he talked with one of the employees, Sandra Roman, who was picketing there. Here she is being translated.

Sandra Roman:
“Yeah. When the Health Department mandated to provide masks, we got masks, but they were doggy diapers and we have to wear them also for a few days until they break down. Also, the gloves that they provided to us, they were not special gloves, for example, for the cashiers. We were wearing the gloves that they use in the kitchen and they are really, really light gloves that they didn’t provide any protection to us.”

Roman Mars:
So this is a McDonald’s owned by a Black franchisee, and many of those striking workers at this McDonald’s are people of color. So what does this tell you about where we are with Black capitalism today?

Marcia Chatelain:
I guess the way we got here is that there is a notion that any opportunity is a good opportunity for Black America, that crumbs can sustain people who are hungry. I think what has happened is that the fast-food industry can continue to thrive in not providing people a safe and sound work environment. What we are confronted with right now is this distance between saying that a corporation supports Black lives and then the treatment of Black workers. You have the distance of celebrating the frontline worker and then not being concerned when the frontline worker gets sick. I think that I can see why franchise owners are so vulnerable to a number of these things. But I think that this is always a good time to take a step back and say, “Is this really the path toward freedom?”

[WHEN WE FIGHT!]

[WE WIN!]

[WHEN WE FIGHT!]

[WE WIN!]

[WHEN WE FIGHT!]

[WE WIN!]

[EXACTLY, AND THAT’S WHY WE’RE HERE IN SUPPORT OF THE MCDONALD’S WORKERS WHO ARE STRIKING.]

Marcia Chatelain:
I think that how well a merchandiser does or how many burgers sold should not have a material impact on whether people live or die. This is the place that I think I find myself in, that I actually don’t care if McDonald’s makes hamburgers and I actually don’t care if people eat them and whether you think they’re eating too many of them. I do care if McDonald’s is able to set a policy agenda that says we can pay workers this and everyone else is going to pay workers this, and this is how much suppliers can make and this is how we’re going to set the market to the detriment of people.

Roman Mars:
When you pass a McDonald’s today, what do you see? What do you want people to notice?

Marcia Chatelain:
Every time I passed McDonald’s or any fast food, I can usually tell what year it was built. The two things that have emerged from it. One, the fun part, is I’ve appreciated the creative energy of the fast-food industry. Prior to doing this work, I knew that it was a lot of work to work in fast food, but I think the skill involved in delivering so much food so quickly, hot, is still something that is so amazing to me, and that is so degraded, but the efficiency of it and the skill required to do it, I’ve become more appreciative of. Then what I also see is a place of deep meaning, even as I think it sometimes can undermine value. So I think I’ve come to a place of understanding that fast food can be harmful and it can be deeply meaningful and that is the space in which I think our best struggle comes out of.

Roman Mars:
Thank you so much for talking with us. I really enjoyed our conversation. I really appreciate it.

Marcia Chatelain:
Oh my gosh. This was so fun.

Roman Mars:
Marcia Chatelain’s book is called “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America.” There is so much more to the story than what we can cover here, so you really need to read it. We’ll have a link on the website.

[MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
Black capitalism is often presented as a solution to African-American political and economic inequality, even though it’s proven to be completely inadequate. But another concept that has been talked about but has never even been tried is reparations. This is the idea of attempting to make amends for slavery and the economic inequality that followed by providing some form of financial compensation. We have a story about one person’s attempt at DIY reparations from the radio show, “The Heart,” that you do not want to miss, after this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
On the Radiotopia podcast “The Heart,” they ran a special mini-series by Phoebe Unter called “Race Traitor” where she examines her own white privilege and explores ways to disrupt it. And in the third episode, she considers the all-white neighborhood she grew up in and comes to the conclusion that her parents should give away their home to serve as reparations for benefiting from racist housing covenants. This excerpt starts with Phoebe talking about the moment a couple of decades ago when her parents set up a new life for their new family.

Phoebe Unter:
And then my parents’ decisions focused on us. They move us across the state line from Missouri to Kansas for better schools. We move into a big, beautiful house in a neighborhood called Mission Hills. I became aware of the man who built this neighborhood early in my childhood. His name is J.C. Nichols. It’s on street signs in Kansas City. And there’s a big public fountain named after him. I grew up thinking he was wonderful and important and cared about beauty and long-lasting quality architecture. I am told that when the house we live in was built, Black people and Jews could not have lived in it. And I’m told that’s just how it was then. It’s no longer enforcible.

Phoebe Unter:
Then five years ago, I’m reading this book. It’s actually a book my mom sent me in the mail, written by Tanner Colby. And there’s a chapter about J.C. Nichols. And for the first time, I read these words. “J.C. Nichols died in 1950, but his plan for permanence lives on. His racial covenants are still with us, auto-renewing year after year, like some horrible gym membership we’ll never get out of.” And for the first time, I read about how J.C. Nichols is known for perfecting the all-white neighborhood by using racial covenants, meaning that the property deeds for all the houses in his neighborhoods included this line. “None of said land may be conveyed to, used, owned or occupied by Negroes as owners or tenants.”

Phoebe Unter:
His racial covenants became all the rage. Developers all over the country mimicked neighborhoods like Mission Hills. J.C. Nichols became so influential that coming out of the Great Depression when the federal government was deciding who should get low-interest mortgages to stimulate home buying and building, they brought J.C. Nichols into the Oval Office to advise. And they copied whole sections of his company handbook right into their brand new policies. The policies that became known as redlining and redlining influenced the value of housing for decades into the 50s when returning World War II vets were looking to buy property. That’s when suburbs took off.

Phoebe Unter:
And then I read this, “The suburban land grab of the 20th century was one of the single greatest engines of wealth creation in human history. It took a country of second and third-generation white ethnic immigrants, vaulted them into the middle class, and sent all their kids to college.” I know I was naive. Shouldn’t everyone assume what they have comes at the expense of other people? We live in America. This is its foundation. But it’s one thing to know this generally and another to see the specific ways what I have, came at the expense of others.

Phoebe Unter:
For my parents, though, it’s not that big of a deal. My family needs to reckon with what we’re harboring, what we’ve inherited, and are maintaining as an intergenerational wealth management system, a.k.a. a white family. I want to help my parents let go of this idea of themselves as innocent and disconnected from J.C. Nichols’s legacy because we’re not innocent living on land, that, first of all, is stolen from indigenous people and then made into neighborhoods where people of color were kept out, stripping those families of the chance to buy property to pass on to their children, like my parents plan to pass on their house to me. We are not innocent owning a home that continues to appreciate in value on this land.

Roman Mars:
Here are Phoebe’s parents, Ellen and Steve.

[CROSS TALK]

Phoebe Unter:
“It made you feel what?”

Steve Unterman:
“You know, ‘icky’ isn’t the right word, but I just thought it was bad, you know? I mean, because I like to sit in this house sometimes and, you know, and wonder what… okay, like in the 30s, people were living here. Our house pretty much looks, most of it looks exactly the same as it did.”

Ellen Murphy:
“And we know that a Democrat bought our house. And so they were probably like Roosevelt supporters. And he was written up in the Democrat Review.”

Steve Unterman:
“But you know that when they signed the paperwork, they knew it was in those covenants.”

Ellen Murphy:
“How do you know?”

Steve Unterman:
“Because it was part of the current occupants-”

Ellen Murphy:
“They didn’t advertise it!”

Phoebe Unter:
“Mom, I looked at advertisements for Mission House that say… (crosstalk)… It’s in the f***ing book.”

Ellen Murphy:
“It said, ‘no Black people?'”

Phoebe Unter:
“No, it says, ‘Live in a neighborhood with the most desirable associations,’ which at the time is very obviously racially coded language to say ‘other high society white people.’

[CROSS TALK]

Phoebe Unter:
“Look, I do have to say it sounds like you’re in denial.”

Ellen Murphy:
“No, I’m not. I’m not in denial.”

Phoebe Unter:
“Both of you. The fact that you want to dispute the facts rather than just…”

Phoebe Unter:
I’m not getting through to my parents. I feel like I need a different approach. I need to have this basic conversation with my parents about how their choices affect other people that aren’t us. They make choices. Other white parents make choices. And it doesn’t really matter if their motives are all the same. But these choices become part of larger patterns.

Roman Mars:
An excerpt from Episode 3 of “Race Traitor” from “The Heart” by Phoebe Unter. Full episode in series is intense and fascinating and will really make you think, it will definitely challenge you, and it might even make me angry. But I was riveted the whole time. You should listen. Find it at theheartpodcast.org.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Chris Berube. Music by Sean Real. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team is senior editor Delaney Hall, Katie Mingle, Sharif Youssef, Emmett FitzGerald, Vivian Le, Joe Rosenberg, Abby Madan, Sofia Klatzer, and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row, which is now distributed in multiple locations throughout North America but in our heart will always be in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.

We are a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative, listener-supported, 100% artist-owned podcasts in the world. Find us all at radiotopia.fm. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99pi.org. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. But we have links to “Franchise” and “The Heart” all kinds of other things that we talked about on this episode and 99pi.org.

  1. Elliot Bowen

    Chatelain argues that Black capitalism of the 1970s was at success. I believe you mean a success. Great episode though!

  2. Louise Christensen

    In Copenhagen Denmark, we have a sociolance. That is a vehicle with personal specialiced in taking care of cases that nead social/psykological and health advice especialy for socially exposed people.

  3. DHW

    Your podcast has turned into all race all the time. It’s no longer about design, so maybe you should change your description on iTunes. Anyway, I’m out. (And cue the shrieking in comment responses calling me a racist for coming to a design podcast hoping to learn about design.)

    1. Johnny

      Anyone who can’t see design in this discussion is probably too blinded by, well, something, to see that design is found throughout this story (how ads are made, how McDonald’s organized its franchise structure to capitalize on black neighborhoods, etc.).

  4. Josh

    I liked this episode but when I heard the the expert say she was amazed at how much skill is involved at making fast food fast I had to stop and question everything she’d said. I worked in fast food for Hardee’s and McDonalds as a teen and there is no skill involved. They actively remove skill requirements to standardize tasks, and the fact that adult workers that aren’t managers are no more trustworthy than the 16 year olds.

    In fact when I was a college student and was hired at a real restaurant as a preparer and appetizer cook when they heard I’d worked 2 years in fast food they replied I had no experience and was put on dishes.

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