Travis Scott's McDonald’s collaboration has already proved hugely profitable for the fast-food corporation. But over the last week, critics have suggested that the partnership might have served a more sinister purpose, specifically diverting attention from racial discrimination lawsuits.
A report by VICE released last week found that Travis Scott and J Balvin's "signature meals" have been great for PR, sales, and stock price. But, perhaps just as importantly, they overshadowed news of two lawsuits filed by Black executives and franchise owners. The suits — launched in January and September, respectively — accuse the corporation of covert racial discrimination.
The first suit claims the company "conducted a ruthless purge" of its Black leaders and fostered a "hostile and abusive work environment" for Black executives and franchise owners. The second, filed by a group of 52 Black franchise owners, claims McDonald's subjected them to "systematic and covert racial discrimination" over the span of decades.
After initially refusing to comment on the VICE report, McDonald's has now released a statement, positing that “any claim that McDonald’s collaboration with Travis Scott was launched in response to recent litigation is completely false.” Marcia Chatelain and Chin Jou — two historians who have written extensively about McDonald's complicated relationship with race in America — think otherwise.
From a brand perspective, Scott is invaluable, particular given his cache with Gen Z. From Fortnite to his Cactus Jack tour merch and his coveted sneaker collabs, a La Flame cosign carries massive weight to young consumers. “This Travis Scott juggernaut has been so successful at obfuscating other McDonald’s-related news items,” Jou observed. For this reason, Scott's collaboration is being viewed by some as the latest chapter in McDonald's fraught narrative around race and inequality in America.
As far back as the '60s, McDonald's began to make efforts to reach a Black audience. White-dominated ad agencies began “to design ads that were racially naive and necessarily relied on stereotypes for lack of any other information,” explained Charlton McIlwain, an NYU professor of race and media. Unfortunately, many of these campaigns not only reinforced racial stereotypes, they also created new ones.
More recently, the fast-food chain has been praised as a job-creator in low-income areas, specifically Black and brown communities. Unfortunately, McDonald's employees lack access to health care, paid sick leave, and child care for parents. These factors exacerbate turnover, which can make it difficult for precariously employed workers to advocate for themselves.
Earlier this year, the coronavirus pandemic began to reveal just how vulnerable Black fast-food workers were. Then in June, McDonald's declared: "Today we stand with Black communities across America," rightfully condemning police brutality.
The situation is perhaps best summed up by Chatelain in "Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America." She argues that the relationship between McDonald's and Black Americans is uniquely complex; it is a story of empowerment, "running up against the limits of American capitalism and inequality."