By Marcia Chatelain
Yes, someone was stabbed to death over a Popeye’s chicken sandwich in Maryland. No, that didn’t make everyone think about whether society has gone too far with this thing, and so we have a woman wrecking her car trying to cut the drive-thru line at Popeye’s on Crenshaw in South L.A. People tried to warn her and wave her off, but she was determined to cut the line, despite a Popeye’s employee trying to stop her and despite her car being damaged by concrete posts. And a guy jumped out of the back seat and started pounding on the windows of a car in line that was blocking her from cutting in front.
Once we understand the negative effects of “Heart Attack” food and the marketing that comes along with it, then we will have a clearer vision of how fast they will move Popeye’s out the urban community once they finish the “Genefication” process that’s taking place nationwide.
Ironically, given this context, it was the removal of discriminatory barriers by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that helped forge a relationship between African Americans and fast food.
Before the Civil Rights Act, African Americans were legally shunned from restaurants and rest stops, hotels, and hospitals in the South for nearly a century after the end of legal slavery. Even after the law banned racial discrimination in these places, black diners were hesitant to enter spaces that might lead to, at best, bad service or, at worst, violence.
Thus, beginning in the late 1960s, fast-food companies began targeting African Americans with multiethnic marketing campaigns, advertisements crafted by a pathbreaking cohort of tastemakers who enlisted black celebrities, scored R&B and rap tunes and used black idioms to ingratiate themselves to black consumers. From the “Getting Down with Something Good at McDonald’s” advertisements of the 1970s to Muhammad Ali, James Brown and Mahalia Jackson’s brief forays into franchising, the fast-food industry made a concerted effort to court black consumers.
Popeyes capitalized on the desire of African Americans to feel at home. Founded by New Orleans businessman Al Copeland in 1972, Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits entered a field dominated by Kentucky Fried Chicken. After a few setbacks, Copeland, who was white, realized that he could make Popeyes a success by offering a more spicy take on what Colonel Sanders was offering. He branded the taste as “Cajun,” and the heat in the chicken coupled with side dishes like red beans and rice enamored many black diners.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers have found that black consumers are more likely than white ones to consume fast food on “any given day.” Researchers have also found ample evidence that African Americans suffer from worse health and shorter life expectancy than white Americans. To name but one example: Over the past 30 years, the National Institutes of Health has noted that African American adults are twice as likely as their white counterparts to develop Type 2 diabetes.
But rather than simply lauding this as savvy marketing, we must consider the complicated histories that shaped this campaign — and their ramifications on how African Americans spend their dollars and the quality of their health.