Byron Allen blasts McDonald’s CEO over comments, calls for his firing

The media mogul takes task with McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski over comments made about parents of Chicago gun violence victims

[Editor’s Note: This post was updated at 3:40 p.m.]

The controversy over McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski’s comments over how the parents of two Chicago children killed in gun violence failed them crossed over into the media community Friday as a letter from Allen Media Group CEO Byron Allen is calling for his firing by the fast-food chain’s board, citing a culture of intolerance at the company.

In an open letter to Chicago-based McDonald’s, with the headline “McDonald’s President & CEO Chris Kempczinski Perpetuates Toxic Racist Culture with Latest Revealed Comments and Must Be Fired Immediately!”, Allen blasted the company for its racist and sexist culture and included is a headline on Kempczinski’s blaming the parents on their untimely deaths. 

This comes after it was revealed Kempczinski sent a text message to Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot noting the shooting deaths of two children last spring saying the parents “failed those kids”, referring to the shooting of seven-year-old Jaslyn Adams at a McDonald’s drive thru in the West Side’s North Lawndale neighborhood and several weeks later, the police shooting of thirteen-year-old Adam Toledo about two miles south in the neighboring Little Village (South Lawndale) neighborhood. Jaslyn Adams was Black; Adam Toledo was Latino.

The release of those texts – due to a Freedom of Information Act requested by Vancouver, B.C. resident Michael Kessler and Chicago-based Lucy Parsons Labs, has sparked outrage forcing Kempczinski to apologize for those remarks. “When I wrote this, I was thinking through my lens as a parent and reacted viscerally”, he said. “But I have not walked in the shoes of Adams’ or Jaslyn’s family and so many others who are facing a very different reality.”

McDonald’s is one of television’s biggest advertisers, and also spends heavily on radio and outdoor buys. McDonald’s also has one of the long-running and most successful marketing slogans, “I’m Lovin’ It”. But no one is loving this latest controversy McDonald’s is involved in.

Jaslyn’s mother fired back at Kempczinski in an interview with the Sun-Times last week. “I am a grieving parent”, said 29-year-old Laniesha Walker, Jaslyn’s mom. “I’ve been grieving for the longest, and from your place of power, you insult me. How dare you judge me! How dare you say I failed my child! I wasn’t there when my child was killed. I didn’t know she was at your McDonald’s with her father at that moment in time. You owe me an apology.

McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczniski.

She continued, “I haven’t really spoken out, because this is not just another child killed in Chicago. This is my child, my daughter who lived with me 24/7. Mr. CEO, you have no clue what it’s like to live on the South Side and West Side, in the trenches, where it gets real treacherous, just to survive, just to protect your children. You come from privilege. You can’t speak about me.”

Chicago is about to come off a year where numerous people under the age of eighteen have been shot and/or killed, approaching homicide numbers not seen since the mid-1990s, an era which saw the high-profile murders of Dantrell Davis and Robert Sandifer. The killings this year have only added to the city’s already-known worldwide reputation for gun violence, fueled by conservative media outlets such as Fox News and under former President Donald Trump.

Allen – a former stand-up comedian and co-star of NBC’s Real People, has become one of the very few African-American media moguls in the business, building Entertainment Studios into a powerhouse with numerous shows airing in syndication and on his own cable networks, who he fought hard to get cable carriage for. Allen bought The Weather Channel in 2018 and jumped into the digital subchannel business by acquiring This TV and Light TV (now known as TheGrio.TV) from MGM last year. Allen is among those bidding for the assets of station group Tegna, who owns 60 stations across the country including Dallas, Washington D.C., Houston, and Atlanta. Allen Media Group currently owns 30 TV stations, including Rockford NBC affiliate WREX. 

Currently, Allen is involved with a $10 billion lawsuit with McDonald’s over racial discrimination claims against Entertainment Studios and Weather Group for “a pattern of racial stereotyping and refusals to contract.” Earlier, Allen was in a lawsuit against Comcast over carriage of his cable channels. Since the killing of Geroge Floyd, the lack of minorities in the media business has come under intense scrutiny.

The news of these texts indeed comes as a shock – and perhaps a betrayal to the Black McDonald’s Operators Association (BMOA) who operates numerous McDonald’s franchises across the South and West Sides of the city and is present in numerous community activities such as The Bud Billiken Parade and Chicago Public League Basketball. However, they’ve had their own share of controversy in recent years, being targeted by activists for advertising on hip-hop stations WGCI-FM and Power 92 (WPWX) due to the often-violent lyrics found in the music they play. The BMOA has not commented on last week’s events.

McDonald’s is the latest Chicago business organization to deal with a public relations crisis in the last few weeks. Just two weeks ago, an investigation into a sexual assault scandal in the Chicago Blackhawks organization during their 2010 championship run tarnished their brand. Then there’s another scandal involving Hubbard-owned WTMX-FM featuring since-departed personality Eric Ferguson, accused of sexually harassing women and forcing them to do disgusting acts. Former WTMX co-host Melissa McGurren is suing the Minneapolis-based broadcaster for $10 million and accused them, among other things of conducting a “sham investigation”.

McDonald’s is known as the world’s leading restaurant chain but hasn’t exactly shown it. Like WTMX, McDonald’s has been dogged by sexual harassment charges amid low pay and a lack of benefits for workers – not to mention the lacking quality of its food. Certainly, Kempczinski should have known better making those kind of comments – even in private – because if it is one thing anyone won’t stand for is someone criticizing their parental skills, especially from someone who never dealt with the problems many of them face raising children in the inner city. All this does is adds yet another layer to McDonald’s ruthless reputation and to the unflattering image many people have of corporate America.

UPDATE: As first reported by Crain’s Monday morning, a political campaign-like ad from the SEIU union has hit the local airwaves in the Chicago market today, urging Kempczinski to meet with Black and Latino McDonald’s employees and community leaders to discuss what can be done to address the racial and sexist atmosphere in the company. According to Crain’s, the ads are slated to run starting today on three local stations: Fox-owned WFLD, NBC-owned WMAQ-TV, and Nexstar’s WGN-TV. A radio version is expected to air on Cumulus’ WLS-AM and Audacy’s WBBM-AM. You can view the clip here

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