cover of the book Rutgers Global Health Institute core faculty member Naa Oyo A. Kwate has been selected to receive the 2024 Best Book in the Field of Urban Affairs Award for White Burgers, Black Cash: Fast Food from Black Exclusion to Exploitation (University of Minnesota Press, 2023). This annual award is presented by the Urban Affairs Association, an international professional organization for urban scholars, researchers, policy analysts, and public service professionals. The award will be presented on April 24 during the International Conference on Urban Affairs in New York.

White Burgers, Black Cash explores how the fast food industry has evolved from a history of racist exclusion to the current targeting of Black Americans. Throughout much of the 20th century, fast food was developed specifically for White customers and deliberately avoided Black neighborhoods. Today, fast food is disproportionately located in Black communities and marketed to Black customers, at the expense of their health.

The book represents years of Kwate’s research. Her interest in the topic began to develop in 1996, when a McDonald’s replaced traditional cafeteria services in Harlem Hospital. At that time, Kwate was pursuing a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at St. John’s University in Queens.

“I was shocked that Big Macs, fries and milkshakes would comprise the food service in a hospital setting—especially given the burden of chronic illness carried by the neighborhood’s African American residents,” Kwate says. “Just as fast food was coming under fire for contributing to the prevalence of obesity in America, it was planting roots in a public health care facility.”

Harlem already had become inundated with fast food establishments, which “sometimes occupied two out of four corners at an intersection, a pattern that was evident across the city in neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn and Jamaica, Queens,” Kwate says. A study Kwate published in 2009 showed that in New York City, the percentage of Black residents was the primary factor linked to the density of fast food in a given area. “From there, I had to figure out how this had come to pass,” she says.

According to the award committee’s statement, Kwate’s book is “impressively interdisciplinary, drawing on methods and themes from history, public health, geography, planning, and sociology.” The committee said Kwate “uses the lens of a single industry to show how structural forces of racism, capitalism, and politics intersect with the individual acts of businesses, customers, and local officials.”

Kwate is an associate professor in the Department of Human Ecology at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and in the Department of Africana Studies at the School of Arts and Sciences. She is an interdisciplinary social scientist with wide-ranging interests in racial inequality and Black urban life.

Originally trained as a clinical psychologist, a startling burden of chronic illness among the patients she treated in large New York City hospitals led Kwate to a research program investigating the social determinants of African American health. With the support of over $2.7 million in federal and foundation funding, Kwate has led interdisciplinary research studies at the intersection of social science, public health, and the humanities.

Prior to White Burgers, Black Cash, she published the short work Burgers in Blackface: Anti-Black Restaurants Then and Now, which examines restaurants that deploy unapologetically racist logos, themes, and architecture; and edited The Street: A Photographic Field Guide to American Inequality, a visual taxonomy of inequality using Camden, New Jersey, as a case study. She is currently writing a book investigating the impact of corner liquor stores in Black communities from 1950 to date.