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McDonald's CEO Chris Kempczinski

McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski at McDonald’s headquarters on Wednesday, May 5, 2021 in the West Loop of Chicago.

Jean Marc-Giboux

McDonald’s CEO sparks outrage with comments about parents of slain Chicago children

Workers at area McDonald’s restaurants and local activists are planning a protest over what they say are “ignorant, racist and unacceptable” comments the corporation’s CEO made in a text message about the shooting deaths of two Chicago children earlier this year.

Employees and community activists have prepared an open letter to McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski after a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by an activist to the City of Chicago yielded a text exchange he had with Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

In the April 19 exchange, Kempczinski addresses the shootings of 7-year-old Jaslyn Adams and 13-year-old Adam Toledo to Lightfoot, who had visited McDonald’s headquarters earlier that day. Kempczinski wrote: “p.s. tragic shootings in last week, both at our restaurant yesterday and with Adam Toldeo [sic]. With both, the parents failed those kids which I know is something you can’t say. Even harder to fix.”

The day before the text exchange, Adams was shot and killed by a gunman while sitting in a car with her father at a McDonald’s drive-thru on Chicago’s West Side. Toledo was killed by a Chicago Police officer on March 29.

McDonald’s employee Adriana Sanchez says she was angered by Kempczinski’s comments.

“He doesn’t know the circumstances of these parents,” Sanchez said in Spanish. “A large number of them are single mothers who are just doing their best and sacrifice.”

Sanchez said Kempczinski is “putting the blame on parents for the violence in the streets. He can’t relate because he is wealthy, and we are not, and he doesn’t understand our struggle.”

She said the corporation has a track record of treating its employees poorly. “Oftentimes we have to work two jobs because the wages are so low; we’re forced to sometimes leave our kids at home alone to go to work,” Sanchez said. “We have to do the job of two or three employees and they allow customers to mistreat us.”

Sanchez, who currently works at a McDonald’s in the Gage Park neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, says she plans to protest at the McDonald’s headquarters on Wednesday.

Adriana Sanchez

McDonald’s employee Adriana Sanchez, who has worked at the restaurant for 19 years, speaks at a protest outside the company’s headquarters on Wednesday, Nov. 3. She said McDonald’s states its support of Black and brown workers, but the company needs to take action.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang

Several community groups are planning to join Sanchez in protest, including the Little Village Community Council, a group that has been calling for justice in the police killing of Toledo.

“[Kempczinski’s] words are very dangerous,” said Baltazar Enriquez, president of the council. “He’s not bringing any solutions to our community. Our community has given millions of dollars, billions of dollars, to the McDonald’s corporation.”

Enriquez said instead of blaming the parents of Toledo and Adams, Kempczinski “should put his money where his mouth is. If he really feels that it’s the mothers’ fault, of them being the culprits of their kids’ deaths, then he should fund our communities with all the profits that he takes.”

In the open letter, scheduled to be sent to Kempczinski on Wednesday morning, McDonald’s workers and community groups contend that Kempczinski’s comments “provide some insight into why McDonald’s has failed to address its rotten, racist culture under your leadership.” The letter also states, “It’s clear to us you’re the one who has failed here. Your text message was ignorant, racist and unacceptable coming from anyone, let alone the CEO of McDonald’s, a company that spends big to market to communities of color and purports to stand with Black lives.”

It calls for Kempczinski to meet with Black and brown employees and community leaders in Chicago in the coming days to “tell us what your plan is to address systemic racism at McDonald’s and beyond.”

WBEZ reached out to McDonald’s and received a letter Kempczinski wrote to employees. In the letter, Kempczinski said that when he wrote the text he was “thinking through my lens as a parent and reacted viscerally. But I have not walked in the shoes of Adam’s or Jaslyn’s family and so many others who are facing a very different reality.

“Not taking the time to think about this from their viewpoint was wrong, and lacked the empathy and compassion I feel for these families. This is a lesson that I will carry with me.”

In the text exchange, Lightfoot said to Kempczinski:

“Thanks, Chris. Great to see you in person. Such a great work space, and your folks were terrific. I said to Joe I would be happy reach [sic] out to the operator to offer support. He and his team members have got to be traumatized. Terrible tragedy. Thanks again, Chris. MLL.”

The mayor’s office responded to WBEZ Tuesday afternoon with a statement: “As the Mayor has said previously, families do everything they can — moms, dads, grandparents — to love and support their children, and tragedies can still happen. Victim shaming has no place in this conversation.”

Enriquez, with the Little Village Community Council, said Lightfoot’s reply to Kempczinski shows “these big corporations are Lori Lightfoot’s boss. That’s what she bows down to. And you could see she did it right there — her actions showed it, that she did not say anything to stop [Kempczinski] from attacking the [parents of Toledo and Adams].”

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.

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