Herb Washington, Former MLB Player and Owner of Largest McDonald’s Franchise, Sues Company for Racial Discrimination

Former Oakland Athletics player, Herb Washington, who built the country’s largest Black-owned McDonald’s franchise, filed a lawsuit this week charging the fast-food behemoth with racism. The company is accused of “redlining and retaliation,” or systemically pushing Black franchisees to open in impoverished neighborhoods, causing them to yield less profit. McDonald’s also allegedly targeted Black owners by providing them with unequal assessments, making it more difficult for them to renew their contracts and then pressuring them to sell to white owners.

Civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson is joining the cause and issued a statement on Thursday, Feb. 18 expressing his concern for the issue. He pointed out that Black owners and operators have historically been central allies and the face of the company.

“Although McDonald’s has made tremendous strides over the years, there seems to be an adverse wind blowing in the face of its Black operators,” Jackson said. “I recently learned of litigation being filed by Herb Washington, whom I met in the 80s while running for president. Herb Washington is a man of integrity, having served on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank for many years. His lawsuit against McDonald’s has my attention and I am concerned about its resolution.”

Jackson said he will be reaching out to the leadership of the corporation about the issues, saying it needed to implement a “respect-based plan” for Black operators.

Washington once owned 27 McDonald’s locations in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, but now owns 14. He says he was forced out of the others over the last three years to make room for white owners. He also accused the company of retaliating against him in 2017, driving him out after he spoke out about the company’s “predatory, racially biased steering practices.”

In a Zoom press conference Tuesday, Washington spoke about his experience of being redlined, steered toward lower-performing restaurants in low-income communities that white owners didn’t want.

“It took every ounce of me to succeed against these incredible and unfair odds that McDonald’s forced on me,” he said. “I was not given the consideration and the breaks that McDonald’s routinely extends to white owners to ensure they’re successful. And when I stood up and objected to this treatment and the treatment of all Black franchisees, McDonald’s merely told me, ‘Shut up, go back to the grill and flip hamburgers.’”

The lawsuit, filed in an Ohio federal court, also accuses McDonald’s of hypocrisy, saying it released statements in support of Black Lives Matter while continuing to mistreat Black owners.

McDonald’s issued a statement Tuesday prior to Washington’s press conference, saying he was to blame because he mismanaged his restaurants. The fast-food corporation said it invested in Washington’s franchise and helped him sell restaurants as part of his business improvement plans. According to The Washington Post, Washington said those recent investments amounted to just $6 per day in an effort to narrow the gap between his sales and those of his white counterparts.

This isn’t the first time McDonald’s has come under fire: Last year, 52 former franchisees sued the company for placing them in high-crime communities, denying them financial assistance, unfair corporate committee evaluations for Black operators and steering prospective owners to purchase restaurants in challenging locations. According to the lawsuit, there were 377 Black franchisees in the system in 1998 — now there are just 186.

McDonald’s claims the company has seen a reduction in franchise owners overall, and that the proportion of Black franchisees is the same. However, the lawsuit claims the number of stores has more than doubled. A spokesperson also told the Post that it does not assign franchisees to restaurants and only makes recommendations. The spokesperson also added that Black franchisees operate in rural, urban and suburban communities.

Still, Washington says ever since he purchased his first franchise in a depressed neighborhood in Rochester, New York 40 years ago, he’s been redlined and retaliated against.

“I took nothing and made something of it,” Washington said Tuesday.