It can be risky to assume something about a person—especially if that assumption impacts someone’s health and well-being. The dangers that can come with assumptions was at the heart of Dr Kendra Outler’s recent conversation with Dr Naa Oyo A. Kwate, a Rutgers University Associate Professor in the Departments of Africana Studies and Human Ecology.
The two doctors covered a number of topics over the course of this podcast, but the focus was on the disproportionate amount of fast-food restaurants that exist in Black communities.
The disparity is also a main focal point in Dr Kwate’s upcoming book, White Burgers, Black Cash: Fast Food from Black Exclusions, Exploitation. DrK discussed Dr Kwate’s findings as she conducted her book research, which helped dispel a number of assumptions that have been made about the Black community’s relationship with fast food and its impact on its health.
Black neighborhoods never had a desire for fast food restaurants. Dr Kwate acknowledged that as she researched for her book, there was no point in history that Black people were clamoring for fast food. In fact, the opposite occurred; people protested fast food restaurants’ continued entrance into their neighborhoods. “(Early on), Black people were busy—they either had their own little restaurants that they were involved with, or they were trying to engage in healthy eating,” Dr Kwate said. “They weren’t concerned about fast food. The only time you see that there’s interest in fast food is when there’s a franchise—an economic opportunity. Nowhere do you see people saying, ‘Oh this food is so wonderful and we want to consume this food all day.’’
Dr Kwate further explained that fast food restaurants weren’t in Black neighborhoods initially. They mainly existed in white neighborhoods. The shift occurred when white families began to leave these neighborhoods and Black people began to move into them. “So, then the restaurants were in spaces that they hadn’t initially intended to be in,” Dr Kwate said. “You had white operators who owned those franchises in Black neighborhoods. When the urban rebellions in the 1960’s hit, a lot of corporate executives said, ‘Well, this is no longer tenable. We can’t really have white owned (restaurants) in what are now Black neighborhoods. We need to put a Black public face on them.’”
This in turn led to more Black franchisees, and celebrities lending their names to fast-food restaurants or starting their own chains. While the shift led to more economic opportunities and jobs, it came at a cost from a health standpoint that still impacts the Black community today. “This is why I keep saying we have to have interdisciplinary conversations when we’re making policies and thinking about the health of our community,” DrK said. You can read an editorial by DrK on fast food and working in the restaurant sector that she published in August 2021 called Fish Boat Girl.
Fast food restaurant’s presence in Black neighborhoods isn’t income related. Drs. Outler and Kwate also discussed why fast-food restaurants are so prominent in Black neighborhoods, and it has nothing to do with income. As Dr Kwate noted it might be easy for someone to make that
assumption—fast food is pitched towards low-income consumers and these neighborhoods are sometimes lower income. However, Dr Kwate’s research found that race was the common denominator when it came to where most fast-food restaurants were located.
“After you account for the income, population density and other variables, Black, far and away, was the strongest predictor,” she said. “And in fact, if you looked at high income Black neighborhoods, lower income, they basically had the same exposure. The income wasn’t a factor anymore. So, it was really about Blackness. It wasn’t about income.” Sadly, as DrK pointed out, there often aren’t a lot of healthier options available to help offset the vast amount of fast-food restaurants in Black neighborhoods—regardless of residents’ overall income
level. “I see this in Washington, DC where we have a very nice area in Prince George’s County, Bowie, MD and the home values are $800,000 and up,” DrK said. “But when I go there to visit friends and family, there’s no Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, fresh fruits and vegetables stands, or a farmers market within walking distance. Then when a business does come in, it’s a lot of high sodium, fast food chain type
things in the area.
“So as physicians, we’re trying to teach people who seem to have insurance, like a military family, out there to eat better, they have the money. (But) who’s going to drive 30 miles to Whole Foods or the nearest Wegmans? You have to be really motivated to do that. People are busy in these homes and the kids here and there, and they have to say, ‘Okay, well, Panda Express is close, so just grab that and come on home, honey.’ It doesn’t matter about the income, they’re still in our neighborhoods.” Lack of nearby retail options further proved Dr Kwate’s thesis that fast-food chains target Black neighborhoods. Her retail study revealed that Black residents in New York had to travel further to get to various retail stores such as pharmacies and bookstores—everything except for fast food restaurants.
“The variable we were really interested in was retail demand,” Dr Kwate said. “Is it the fact that these stores are located there more because there’s more demand for them? Which is again a common assumption that it must be that Blacks only mostly want fast food—that’s why it’s there. But when we did that study, it was not driven by demand.” Another perfect example of the dangers that can come from assuming something about another person.
If you prefer a podcast version, listen to DrK’s conversation with Dr Kwate.