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NDG Book Review: ‘White Burgers, Black Cash: Fast Food from Black Exclusion to Exploitation’

By Terri Schlichenmeyer

Hold the pickles, no mustard.

Double patty, add bacon, fried onions, that’s how you like your burger. As for chicken, well, it has to have cheese, and there must be something salty-crunchy on the side or it’s not a complete meal. Yeah, Mom could sure 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 to come to Black communities.

Though restaurants certainly existed before the turn of the last century, fast food joints “took root in the early 1900s, when the earliest…chains began.” White Castle, with their oniony square burgers, is widely considered to be the first; later, KFC, Burger King, and McDonald’s became the juggernauts of the industry, and something set them apart.

The first fast food restaurants, says Kwate, “did not include Black folks,” whether explicitly or implicitly when restaurants weren’t built in their areas. While high-end establishments and wealthier homes employed Black waiters, fast food was “almost exclusively White,” from kitchen to booth.

In the 1920s, though, franchisees started noticing that they were leaving money on the table. Slowly, fast food restaurants were built in areas once ignored – possibly, says Kwate, for profit or perhaps because developers saw it as a way to keep Black diners from White neighborhoods. There was controversy about the new additions – citizens of both races thought the restaurants were “a nuisance.” After a time, some already-established restaurants were accidentally found in Black neighborhoods because of “White flight.”

By the latter half of the 1960s, Black investors were finally invited to buy in as franchisees; in addition, some White operators were ordered by their home franchise to sell a percentage of their sites to Black citizens. This led closer to the equality Black operators wanted, but with a price: by the turn of this century, “studies began to mount… showing that residential proximity to fast food mattered for health.”

“Black youth,” says Kwate, “were especially at risk.”

Looking for something light to read while you enjoy your basket meal with onion rings? This book is interesting, but it isn’t like that.

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. There are pictures in here but those, too, often have inadequate context. Still, it’s worth biting into this book because of its wider focus on racism and what White America was doing at this time, and its inclusion of other, more social history that’s relevant to this subject.

Readers who can consume this book slowly, and chew on its information with careful thought will get more out of it than those who want a fast book about fast food. “White Burgers, Black Cash” deserves more cogitation, and you won’t even need fries with that.

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