Last summer, the McDonald's restaurant on Third and Pine (a privately owned franchise of the world's biggest fast-food chain) started playing music through outdoor loudspeakers in the evenings. This step was not taken to entertain the customers who linger outdoors, nor to entertain the black teens who use the corner as a gathering place after-hours, but to clear them out. Like the ATF units who blasted hiphop and speed metal into the Koresh compound at Waco, management carefully selected what type of music would achieve the desired effect. They started playing country and western.

At 10:00 on a Tuesday night outside the franchise, the serious young crack dealers who frequent the cater-corner bus stop are going about their business in front of Mickey D's. That's where Capitol Hill buses connect to the southbound #7 and #14. The stop is empty but for a burly, young, white cop and a 40ish, bespectacled black man--who is trying, in a friendly way, to describe to the police officer the reality of the situation: "They're playing country music to keep black people from hanging out on this corner." His tone admits that the kids across the street are not model citizens. "It's like, if you played rap real loud in a place where white people went, they wouldn't want to be there." This is not exactly true. White kids love rap, and any loud music annoys most adults.

Before last year, when the outdoor music started ["McHoedown," Samantha M. Shapiro, May 20, 1999], this was a loud, slightly rough-edged, urban nighttime teenage scene. Some of the regulars hung on through the winter, boom boxes turned up to drown the twang, headphones half over their ears. But in the last several months the volume was turned up, and contemporary Nashville trash was replaced by Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. "I wouldn't hang out here if I didn't have to," the cop says. "I don't like country music."

Well, I love country music. But played outside at night, at a volume that would drive away anyone without a deep and abiding appreciation of what is, admittedly--even for my white ass--an endurance test, the country music is effectively clearing the sidewalk. And McDonald's is twisting and misusing the art in the worst possible way.

This is a complicated situation. How can McDonald's so blithely contribute to the institutionalization of racial boundaries around art? While this is going on, white suburban teens (go ahead and mock them, and then take a look back at yourself at that age) are exploring alternatives to their strip-mall unreality, and trying to face the entirety of the country in which they live. In this way, they are becoming, perhaps, more truly American than any generation on this continent since Columbus. McDonald's is conducting a social experiment and getting the desired result: less trouble on the corner where they sell hamburgers. What do they care about the delicacy of race or art? As Calvin Coolidge said, "The business of America is business."

The woman I spoke to at the McDonald's corporate office in Kirkland said it was simply my perception that this was a racist tactic. The manager of the Third and Pine store told me I could be sued for expressing my opinion of their African American-free zone. To those apologists I would say that speech is a two-way interaction. The fact is that the music from the outdoor loudspeakers is widely and justifiably perceived among black passersby as the aural, racial equivalent of a bum-proof bench, and therefore is exactly that.

The average black adult in America probably comes across overt and more subtle versions of this type of insult every day. But the blatant racism of McDonald's is a slur against this city's better hopes. The city does not hesitate to prosecute taggers and sidewalk sitters, or to confiscate the property of drivers with outstanding parking tickets, but it does nothing while a rich corporation waves this country's racism in the faces of black children--to whom we must offer a stake in this society, or doom it and them to hopelessness. Racism is a byproduct of the complexity of human relations and the limits of experience and imagination, and denial will not make it anything different. Music should be a gift, a gesture of sympathy and sharing. What is going on right now at Third and Pine is hurtful and obscene.

Mayor Paul Schell: 684-4000

City of Seattle Office

for Civil Rights: 684-4500

McDonald's at Third and Pine: 624-9484

McDonald's Corporation: (425) 827-9700