It’s Bigger than Paula Deen (Participation)

By Guest Contributor Dr. David J. Leonard, cross-posted from Dr. David J. Leonard

The fallout from Paula Deen’s deposition and the lawsuit itself is a reminder of the ways that race and gender operate within the restaurant industry.  It’s bigger than Paula Deen.  Yet, as you read media reports, as you listen to various commentaries, you would think this is a story about an older white woman wedded to America’s racist past.  Yes, this is a story about Paula Deen, and her crumbing empire.  But that is the beginning, not the end. This is bigger than one individual, her reported prejudices, or the lawsuit at hand.  This is about a restaurant industry mired by discrimination and systemic inequalities.

Racism pervades the entire industry, as evident in the daily treatment faced by workers, the segregation within the industry, differential wage scale, and its hiring practices.  According to Jennifer Lee, “Racial Bias Seen in Hiring of Waiters:”

Expensive restaurants in New York discriminate based on race when hiring waiters, a new study has concluded. The study was based on experiments in which pairs of applicants with similar résumés were sent to ask about jobs. The pairs were matched for gender and appearance, said Marc Bendick Jr., the economist who conducted the study. The only difference was race, he said.

White job applicants were more likely to receive followup interviews at the restaurants, be offered jobs, and given information about jobs, and their work histories were less likely to be investigated in detail, he said Tuesday. He spoke at a news conference releasing the report in a Manhattan restaurant.

There really should not be a lot of difference in how the two of them are treated,” Mr. Bendick said. He was hired by advocacy groups for restaurant workers as part of a larger report called “The Great Service Divide: Occupational Segregation and Equality in the New York City Restaurant Industry.” He has made a career of studying discrimination, ranging from racism in the advertising industry to sexism in firefighting.

Mr. Bendick said that in industries, such experiments typically found discrimination 20 to 25 percent of the time. In New York restaurants, it was found 31 percent of the time.

A recent report from the ROC (Restaurant Opportunities Center) found that Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Capital Grille, among others) was responsible for creating a racially hostile environment.


The report also outlines recent lawsuits against Darden for employment discrimination based on race, including a 2008 lawsuit that charged that Beachwood, Ohio Bahama Breeze employees of color were repeatedly pelted with racial slurs such as “Aunt Jemima” and “stupid n**ger” by managers. This resulted in a EEOC announcement of a $1.26 million settlement from Darden in 2009. In describing the settlement, EEOC’s acting chairman Stuart J. Ishimaru said “No worker should have to endure a racially hostile work environment in order to earn a paycheck.”

It additionally concluded that it, “fired black servers because they did not ‘fit the company standard’ at their Capital Grille restaurant” and that it “prevents people of color & immigrants from accessing living wage positions, such as server and bartender, at their Capital Grille fine dining restaurant.” It’s bigger than Deen.

A 2007 lawsuit against Daniel Boulud points to another instance:

According to the lawsuit, dining room workers at Daniel have been denied promotion because they were Latino or Bangladeshi. The employees also say that Mr. Boulud and other managers yelled racial slurs. At one point, they say, Spanish was banned among employees; only English and French were allowed. Those are examples, they say, of how the working culture at Daniel favors white Europeans at the expense of other groups.

Here are but a few examples from the EEOC

In March 2008, a national restaurant chain entered a consent decree agreeing to pay $30,000 to resolve an EEOC case charging that the company gave African-American food servers inferior and lesser-paying job assignments by denying them assignments of larger parties with greater resulting tips and income, by denying them better paying assignments to banquets at the restaurant, and by failing on some occasions to give them assignments to any customers. The consent decree enjoins the restaurant from engaging in racial discrimination and requires the chain to post a remedial notice and amend and distribute its anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. The amended policies must state that prohibited racial discrimination in “all other employment decisions” includes, but is not limited to, making decisions and providing terms and conditions of employment such as pay, assignments, working conditions, and job duties; also, it must prohibit retaliation. In addition, the company must revise its complaint mechanism and clarify and expand its website and toll-free phone number for the reporting of incidents of employment discrimination. The consent decree also requires the restaurant to provide training in equal employment opportunity laws for all of its employees and to appoint an Equal Employment Office Coordinator, who will be responsible for investigating discrimination complaints. EEOC v. McCormick & Schmick’s Restaurant Corp, No. 06-cv-7806 (S.D.N.Y. March 17, 2008).

In January 2008, a bakery café franchise in Florida entered a two-year consent decree that enjoined the company from engaging in racial discrimination or retaliation and required it to pay $101,000 to the claimants. EEOC had alleged that the company segregated the Black employees from non-Black employees and illegally fired a class of Black employees in violation of Title VII. Under the consent decree, the principal of the company must attend an eight-hour training session on equal employment opportunity laws. The decree also mandated that if the company ever re-opens the franchise in question or any other store, it must distribute its anti-discrimination policy to all employees, post a remedial notice, and report any future complaints alleging race-based discrimination. EEOC v. Atlanta Bread Co., International and ARO Enterprise of Miami, Inc., No. 06-cv-61484 (S.D. Fla. January 4, 2008).

In September 2006, the Korean owners of a fast food chain in Torrance, California agreed to pay $5,000 to resolve a Title VII lawsuit alleging that a 16-year old biracial girl, who looked like a fair-skinned African American, was refused an application for employment because of her perceived race (Black). According to the EEOC lawsuit, after a day at the beach with her Caucasian friends, the teen was asked if she would request an application on her friend’s behalf since the friend was a little disheveled in appearance. The owner refused to give the teen an application and told her the store was not hiring anymore despite the presence of a “Help Wanted” sign in the window. After consultation among the friends, another White friend entered the store and was immediately given an application on request. EEOC v. Quiznos, No. 2:06-cv-00215-DSFJC (C.D. Cal. settled Sept. 22, 2006).

In December 2005, EEOC resolved this Title VII lawsuit alleging that a fast food conglomerate subjected a Black female employee and other non-White restaurant staff members (some of them minors) to a hostile work environment based on race. The racial harassment included a male shift leader’s frequent use of “n**ger” and his exhortations that Whites were a superior race. Although the assistant manager received a letter signed by eight employees complaining about the shift leader’s conduct, the shift leader was exonerated and the Black female employee who complained was fired. The consent decree provided $255,000 in monetary relief: $105,000 to Charging Party and $150,000 for a settlement fund for eligible claimants as determined by EEOC. EEOC v. Carl Karcher Enterprises, Inc., d/b/a Carl’s Jr. Restaurant, No. CV-05-01978 FCD PAW (E.D. Cal. Dec. 13, 2005).

The examples are a plenty. As with every American institution, race matters. Restaurants are immensely segregated: by location, by job, by placement on the floor, by wage, and by clientele. Servers, bartenders, and hosts are white, while runners, bussers, those in the back of the house, and those who make the lowest wages are overwhelming people of color. Of those who have reported earning less than minim wage, 96% are people of color. Workers of color experience racism and microaggressions; they are more likely to be questioned as to their qualifications. It is a world where irrespective of diversity, in terms of both staff and food choices, racism remains a constant on every menu. According to Saru Jayarman, “We tend not to realize that diversity is not the same as equity – that simply seeing a lot of restaurant workers from different backgrounds doesn’t mean that restaurant workers from different backgrounds doesn’t mean that restaurant workers have equal opportunities to advance to jobs that will allow them support themselves and their families.”

The restaurant industry is also rife with sexism – women earn 85 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts. Women are also relegated to the lowest-paying jobs with the worst chances of upward mobility. Women are subjected to rampant sexual harassment. Although only 7% of the nations workers can be found in restaurants, in 2011 they accounted for 37% of the sexual harassment complaints to the EEOC.

The relative silence about these daily abuses and horrid conditions is telling. It’s bigger than Deen.  She is not the lone rotten apple but one of many in a rotten barrel. Yet the emergent narrative that once again images racism as the purview of southern whites of a previous generation is revealing.  It’s bigger than Deen.   It’s bigger than Food Network but about an industry that has gotten away with abuse and discrimination yet we rarely get to see “behind the kitchen door.” This lawsuit, and the media fallout have shined a spotlight on a culture of abuse and exploitation.  Yet we cant take our eyes off Deen.


9 thoughts on “It’s Bigger than Paula Deen (Participation)

  1. Although it is annoying that Paula Dean’s actions got more attention than various other cases such as the ones described, in my opinion it is a good thing that this treatment received so much public attention. I know it made me think more about racisms in general, and hopefully helped the public think about this as well. The one thing that I did not tie to this when the accusations came out were the general discriminative treatment, specifically in the restaurant industry. Throughout the last few classes, I have thought a lot about the industry and the discrimination that occurs. Before this class I never made the connection between Paula Dean and the industry and general. I honestly thought, oh she’s from the south that’s not surprising but . these last few classes have changed my opinion drastically.

    • This class definitely brought to life the many issues with discrimination and racism in our modern-day society The actions of Paula Dean brought to life these exact ideas and made the people around her understand how these ideas are impacting the people around us. Coming from a summer job in a restaurant, I already knew a little bit about the discrimination in the industry, but his class really solidified and explained everything in detail and made me understand more about what exactly are the problems that we face on a daily basis.

  2. After reading this article I am extremely frustrated. The amount of examples of lawsuits against restaurants for racial discrimination and poor treatment is appalling. The 2007 lawsuit against Daniel Boulud stated that Mr. Boulud and other managers yelled racial slurs, denied promotions to Latino or Bangladeshi employees, and at one point Spanish was banned among employees. That is ridiculous! I worked in a restaurant for three years and I spoke Spanish with several of my coworkers every day, I can’t imagine being told I can’t speak a certain language. These expensive lawsuits should make other restaurants want to avoid racial discrimination and poor treatment to avoid bad publicity which would make them lose business. The color of someone’s skin does not make their resume or skills less or more valuable. It doesn’t mean that a person is a hard or lazy worker. All of this assumption is aggravating, you don’t know how hard or skilled a worker is until you fully review their resume or give them a chance to prove themselves. People should not be denied a job just because of their race.

    • I fully agree with this comment! Especially the example of banning Spanish among employees. In America we pride ourselves on diversity and we are not a country who all looks the same and speaks the same language. A large percentage of Americans speak Spanish and other languages and to ban that is taking away their basic ability to embrace and live their own culture. I agree that these lawsuits should make other restaurants want to avoid these types of discrimination but for some reason they don’t. These lawsuits should be made more public and prevalent in the media to encourage all restaurants to treat their employees without discrimination.

  3. After reading this article, I didn’t like the fact Paula Dean’s actions are becoming more thoughtfulness about other cases that designated. In my opinion is a better thing for the behavior for the community. To me it kind a like giving more and more information about racism overall. To me it kind a like they’re having issue with people that having different skin, and it does not make their recommence or their own personality more value. That is just some of my own thought and knowledge of what I just read about this article of how they treat different racism and kind a touch on sexism on different type of sex within female and male, of how they lower paying job of women.

  4. After reading this article I noticed this racism and discrimination will never end any time soon. After all the harsh things Blacks went through during slavery and being treated like we’re not human is still happening today. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and other leaders fought for us to have equal opportunity, they sacrificed their lives to better the future. In today’s time racism and discrimination still exists. Job owners aren’t hiring minorities because of the color of their skin. They don’t even know the person but, think that white is still the superior race. This is really disturbing after seeing a lady like Paula Dean’s actions. I don’t see why the restaurant businesses do black people so wrong and all we’re trying to do is work and provide for our family. They only pay $2.29 an hour and the workers make the rest off of tips. This is not a job to live off of and especially is you have a family to look after. The 2007 lawsuit against Daniel Boulud stated that Mr. Boulud and other managers yelled racial slurs, calling black workers niggers. I’m surprised the workers allowed him to say that to them. From this CES class I learned a lot more about racism and how people still discriminate and don’t know they’re doing it. Racism should be against the law around the world. It’s really bad how women get treated lower than men in this industry as well.

  5. Discrimination in the restaurant industry in terms of race and gender should be brought to the publics attention. Even though the Paula Deen scandal is focusing on her “crumbling empire” the attention on the subject is spreading a little light on the issue that I never knew existed before. There is no reason for restaurants to discriminate against the race of their employees when they have no idea how hard of workers they are or what they are capable of. New York is already one of the most expensive places to live, so the fact that restaurants are making it even harder for people of color to find jobs has a huge impact on their style of living. Whites are given an unfair advantage before they even interview. Situations like the African American girl being refused an application is an indicator that racism is still in full swing around the United States. When someone can treat a young girl like that it is unbelievable. Women who earn 85 cents on the dollar compared to men and on top of that have to deal with being sexually harassed or mistreated should be brought to the medias attention instead of the Paula Deen scandal. Why aren’t these things talked about in the media more and why isn’t Darden restaurants being punished for their harsh treatment of their workers? These posts and class discussions have opened my mind to issues that are occurring that I had no idea about before.

  6. Drawing more attention than other equally oppressive cases, Paula Deen’s higher profile increases public interest leading readers to form their own opinions and stances on the restaurant industry and it’s embedded injustices. While the article somewhat reprimands the public for only paying attention to the case with a famous face attached, I believe that any attention is better than none. While we may be only scratching the surface of the underlying discrimination present in the restaurant industry, it may encourage some to dig deeper or become proactive towards industry changes.

    • The article is saying by making Paula Deen this big deal we’re essentially relying on old stereotypes to reinforce our ideas on race relations. Being a white southerner is like the go to racists or bigots in america and i think the article is saying that stereotype reinforcement keeps us from the reality of institutional racism. We shouldn’t be attacking paula deen because the rules and customs of her industry promote her behavior. The public backlash should be on the industry as a whole. Im not saying paula shouldnt be put on blast but while we talk about paula the discussion should include on how common and widespread this treatment in general is. In this day and age just enough isnt gonna cut it any more we should be past stuff like this and were not and the lack of depth in discussion when instances like these come up and become publicized is a big part of why things remain the same because theres no real talk on why this keeps happening.

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