current Project

Race at the drive-thru: Fast food and the color line

Louis Malle's 1986 documentary And the Pursuit of Happiness depicts an English language class for new U.S. immigrants. The instructor leads a group through a mock conversation meant to typify the discourse they might encounter in their new country. In halting English, the class repeats the following exchange: "You must be short of money if you only worked three days a week. Let's go to Wendy's and have a hamburger...Sorry, I'm out of money...I'll treat you this time. Next month you can treat me." One student's confusion about Wendy's prompts the instructor to exclaim, "Where you buy the hamburgers! You can go to McDonald's, or Burger King, anywhere!" Using fast food to teach English to future citizens is also an implicit lesson on a credible American lifestyle, and underscores the centrality of hamburgers and fries in national iconography. But in recent years, fast food has been prominent in public discourse about obesity.

Public health studies have documented the bodily consequences of proximity to, and consumption of fast food. Moreover, these are risks borne disproportionately by Black neighborhoods, stimulating public and private actors to respond to inequities in fast food exposure. For example, in 2008, the Los Angeles City Council enacted an ordinance forbidding new fast food restaurants in predominantly Black and Latino South L.A. Even as public policies begin to remediate urban food environments, we know little about the historical conditions that have made fast food so endemic in Black neighborhoods. This project interrogates the forces that moved fast food from its postwar origins in middle-class White suburban and rural communities to predominantly Black central cities, and at what cost.