When you live in a racist society, even something as simple as a chicken sandwich may not be just a chicken sandwich.
The sandwich wars reignited on Sunday when Popeyes reintroduced their popular fried chicken sandwich, in direct competition with Chick-fil-A. The sandwich had been so popular earlier this year that Popeyes literally ran out of chicken.
It’s a cultural moment and, for better or worse, it was impossible to ignore how black Twitter virtually exploded in debate over which sandwich was better. Like a lot of progressives, I can proudly say that I’ve never had a Chick-fil-A sandwich. The summer launch of the Popeyes sandwich ran smack into my aggressive beach body goals, so I haven’t had one of those either.
While I make an excellent fried chicken sandwich – I personally would give it an award if I ran an institution that bestowed such honors – I must admit that I hit pause a couple of times before moving forward with a piece centered around this. There’s been no shortage of online shaming over this conversation, some of it animated by the respectability politics that have black folks taking other black folks to task for feeding stereotypes. Many of the exhaustive media takes on the sandwich wars have been penned by black writers linking the sandwich to black culture, and defending the right to enjoy it despite that.
This tension has turned the cultural moment into a political one. For many, that included casting Popeyes as the conquering hero and Chick-fil-A as the evil king in need of dethroning. There’s a clear reason for that: Chick-fil-A is a bad company with immoral politics. Boycotting them in favor of Popeyes is a choice I’m happy to make.
Chick-fil-A has long supported rightwing politics. It’s best known in progressive circles for opposition to LGBT rights, but like most projects of the right wing, that work is intertwined with anti-blackness and patriarchy. The company has given millions to anti-gay political groups, including the known hate group Family Research Council, run by Tony Perkins. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Perkins has spoken to an avowed white supremacist organization and railed against the growth of Islam in America. When running the Senate campaign of his mentor, Woody Jenkins, he paid Klan leader David Duke $82,000 for his mailing list, then hid it from election officials. He is one of a group of rightwing, pseudo-Christian advocates who have boosted and defended Donald Trump despite the president’s total lack of Christian morality and flagrant racism.
Chick-fil-A’s political record meant many were ready to back Popeyes, which is clearly going after Chick-fil-A’s market share. Their sandwich is remarkably similar, right down to the wrapper. The two companies threw shade at each other on Twitter. In a new ad last week, Popeyes even trolled Chick-fil-A’s famous decision to remain closed on Sundays for church.
But that last dig is the only reference Popeyes has made to the conservative views of Chick-fil-A’s owners. The company has done very little else to brand itself as a progressive alternative to its rival. It has no history of standing up for racial justice, even though black folks, culture and colloquialisms are prominent in their advertising. In fact, a look at their advertising shows no prominent history of aligning with causes beyond selling chicken, biscuits and sides, which of course is the only thing they care about. That hasn’t stopped many people from placing their support for Popeyes squarely in a political context. The LGBT publication the Advocate titled its review of the sandwich “More Flavor, Less Homophobia”.
But it’s a mistake to think that Popeyes, or any corporation, is a part of our movement. Like most fast-food chains, the company is decidedly anti-worker. A report in Jacobin notes that Popeyes continues to pay its diverse workforce poverty wages, just $8.32 an hour for cooks. Its parent company, Restaurants Brands International, made $5.35bn in revenue in 2018. But when a hard-fought organizing campaign resulted in a higher minimum wage in Ontario in 2016, RBI responded by cutting health benefits and paid breaks at the company’s Tim Hortons franchise.
The corporation has also come under fire from environmental advocates. Unlike competitors, the company has not taken steps to reduce its contributions to deforestation through its supply chain, which relies heavily on things like palm oil.
Other corporations have tried to trade on wokeness far more explicitly than Popeyes. Nike got praise from many for its 2018 ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, the blacklisted black quarterback frozen out of the NFL for daring to protest against police violence against the black community. At the same time, the company is moving backwards on its accountability on exploited sweatshop labor. In 2017, Nike refused to submit to independent monitoring of its overseas factories by the Worker Rights Consortium. Starbucks made headlines in 2015 with an ill-received campaign that encouraged baristas to talk about race, then made different headlines in 2018 for calling the police on black patrons who dared to sit in their cafe and do nothing (like everyone else).
Corporations use wokeness like they use blackness and everything else: to them it’s a commodity, to be used if it helps turn a profit and discarded if it does not. They make a public display of celebrating Black History Month while they funnel dollars to politicians who dismantle the hard-fought victory of the heroes they pay tribute to. CEOs take selfies with pink breast-cancer-awareness ribbons while they continue to encourage a work culture that denigrates and endangers women. They sponsor elaborate Pride floats and then give money to politicians on the other side of progress for LGBTQ people around the world. Companies like Chick-fil-A which are open about their prejudices are easy to hate. But companies that try to hide their misdeeds behind a veneer of justice are in some ways worse.
So where does that leave you and me? We need to eat. We need to buy clothes. Like all people on this earth, we deserve opportunities to have joyful experiences. The demand isn’t that we opt out entirely from the economy. Voting with our wallets can be an effective and necessary tactic in creating social change.
But we must always remember that the companies we choose as “better” have no loyalty to us. I’m not saying choosing Popeyes is a poor choice, but we shouldn’t overstate its impact or confuse it for systemic change. Unless we are holding corporations to a high standard on how they engage in our politics and economy – changing policies and practices in the process – then the status quo remains. The net result will be our movements, mission, and public support co-opted for profit.
We must expect more than “shoutouts” from the stage. Refuse to give companies a free pass just for being better than the worst corporate actors. Call out empty attempts to leverage our movements for corporate profit.
So yes … enjoy your corporate chicken sandwich. But know that this time the chicken sandwich is just a chicken sandwich.
Rashad Robinson is the president of Color Of Change and a Guardian US columnist