Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Jim Crow Guide to Fine Dining

Even the plutocrats of One Percent Nation have to eat. They eat well, they eat regularly, and they dine out. A lot. Because the Long Depression has not affected the pocketbooks of the wealthy, the high-end hospitality business is one of the few booming industries in this dismal economy. One out of every 12 private sector jobs is in restaurants. It is also very likely that when Richie Rich Congressman or K Street Kleptocrat sits down at, say, the Capital Grille, his server will be white.
 Brown and black employees rarely get table-waiting jobs in fancy restaurants. They're usually relegated to the clean-up crew, the dishwashing detail, or at best, to the crummy tables in the back of the room.  The restaurant employment watchdog group ROC (Restaurant Opportunities Center) says that in an industry already notorious for its poverty level wages, black employees earn an average of $4 less an hour than whites.
A 2009 study revealed that hiring discrimination in high-end New York City restaurants, where workers can earn up to $100,000 annually, is also common. The wealthier the clientele and the pricier the menu, the likelier it is that your server will be fair-skinned and accent-free. Unless, naturally, it's a French accent.
Now, a federal lawsuit against the Darden Group, a huge restaurant chain with a  reputation for serial discrimination, has been filed in Illinois. Minority workers in the chain, which includes Olive Garden, Red Lobster and the tonier Capital Grille, claim that they are paid less than minimum wage, are often forced to work off the clock, and are denied promotion. One restaurant (the Capital Grille in Washington) allegedly fired a group of black servers en masse because it was suddenly decided they didn't meet optical standards. How ironic, considering that Darden CEO Clarence Otis Jr is himself a well-regarded African American businessman. He used to work for JP Morgan, and is also a member of the Federal Reserve in Atlanta.
Otis, judging from an indignant editorial he wrote recently on the CNN website, finds it annoying that his wage slaves want to be treated with dignity. An Obama donor, he also reportedly met personally with the president to kvetch about how hard it is out there for job creators providing all those thousands of fantastic minimum wage jobs, only to have their largesse and civic-mindedness abused by burdensome government regulations eating into bottom lines and investor dividends.  We have no idea whether Obama told him off, placated him, laughed uproariously, or what. It was private. But here is what Otis actually had the chutzpah to whine about publicly: 
 Regulatory mandates flowing from federal health care reform may be the most visible, but the list also includes measures such as new mandatory paid leave provisions that require us to change the way we accommodate employees who need to take time off when they are ill and ever more unrealistic requirements regarding employee meal and rest breaks that, in California for example, force our employees to take breaks in the middle of serving lunch or dinner.
Otis, who makes $7.16 million a year, actually did get one of the many Obamacare waivers absolving him from having to fully cover his part-timers. Yet, according to the lawsuit filed last week in Chicago, he doesn’t even pay some of them minimum wage.  Color of Change, an African-American advocacy group, is outraged:
Darden runs nearly 2,000 restaurants nationwide and boasts annual sales of $7.5 billion. But the few Black workers who make it into the big leagues there often don't stay very long. According to reports from two Black servers who worked at Darden's Capital Grille in DC -- a restaurant patronized by politicians, lobbyists, and others in the Washington elite -- Black front-of-the-house staff were let go en masse within a short period of time because they “didn’t fit the company image.” They were all replaced by White workers.
Despite the pattern of racial discrimination, Darden -- the world's largest full-service restaurant company -- ranks in the "Top 100 Places to Work," an annual list published by Fortune Magazine. The company gets high marks for a diverse workforce (of course, there's no mention of who works which job.) At a time when Black unemployment is nearly twice the national average and the private sector is being heralded as our greatest hope, Darden's pattern of relegating Black workers to lowest wage work is unconscionable.
Despite the lawsuit, Darden will get a dollop of free positive publicity this week when First Lady Michelle Obama celebrates the second anniversary of her "Let's Move" anti-obesity campaign at a Texas Olive Garden restaurant. Darden is among the corporations which have pledged to gradually (they get five years) start reducing the salt and fat content of the food they sell and to add healthier sides. 

But I digress. If you're wondering whether your own favorite restaurant is among the many which treat its employees like crap, ROC has put out a handy Zagat-type rating guide to help you. (You can also sign Color of Change's petition telling Mr. Wonderful's Darden chain to cut the crap, right here.)  
The Guide evaluates more than 150 popular restaurants and chains nationwide against 3 criteria: provision of paid sick days, wages of at least $9 per hour for non-tipped workers and $5 per hour of tipped workers, and opportunities for internal advancement.
These are good criteria. I don’t want a sick person handling my food, nor do I want them to lose wages or jobs because they’re sick. The minimum wage for tipped workers has remained at a measly $2.13 per hour for nearly 20 years, so every day consumers have to push for a higher standard since Congress won’t. And finally, racial and gender hierarchies are a fact of life in the restaurant industry, with white men getting the best paying jobs at the front of the house. Across the country, ROC United has found that a system that enables internal promotion so that back of the house workers can get access to front of the house jobs, is a key element of restaurants that don’t discriminate.
The Guide goes further than telling you where to go. Since it doesn’t cover absolutely every one of the millions of restaurants in this country, ROC United asks diners to simply take a look around and ask a few questions when they eat out. Just opening our eyes will tell us who works where. Are all the waiters white? Are all the bussers Latinos? Are there no black people or women anywhere? It isn’t difficult to ask your waiter what his hourly wages are. And if the restaurant doesn’t meet the standards listed above, there are tear out cards in the back of the guide that you can leave with management to let them know where they can get help to do better.


James F Traynor said...

Ah, yes, leg of Otis barbecued over a slow fire. Might be a tad stringy so perhaps prior marinating would be advised. And table service by Yale graduates, members of Skull and Bones, would be nice. They could be examined by gourmets as possible candidates for the table, after suitable fattening.

The Black Swan said...

My only job as an adult has been as a line cook in restaurants. I am a white man, with no college degree and no formal culinary training. I have had offers to move to the Front of the House, and even tried it out a bit, but it did not work for me. Some people just do better staying in the kitchen! This situation, especially FOH and BOH is much more complicated than just racism. In the kitchen, everything I ever saw was merit based. Guys who couldn't hardly speak English would be running the line because they were the most skilled. As far as FOH is concerned, the restaurant does need waiters who speak English! I know this doesn't cover all races, but a reason a lot of Latinos are in the Back of the House or bussing, is language. I am not trying to condone racism or discrimination in the work place, but I think this is a much more nuanced subject than it appears in this essay. I don't think it is a restaurant industry problem as much as it is a corporate america problem. Corporations will always take advantage of employees, and in the good old USA, minority employees are always the easiest to take advantage of. Just because a restaurant has a minority staff in the kitchen and white people in the dining area does not mean it is a racist establishment.

Denis Neville said...

Jim Crow, a new form of 21st Century slavery, is alive and well in our so-called post-racial colorblind society.

And not just in our restaurants, but in our criminal justice system as well.

Michelle Alexander was a guest on UP w/Chris Hayes Saturday morning. She is the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Videos here:

Jim Crow is also alive and well in our increasingly separate-and-not-equal public education system.

David Simon’s The Wire is a favorite of mine. Simon, who made Baltimore a metaphor for our nation’s urban tragedy is an American Charles Dickens. Simon wrote in the Baltimore Sun, “America now jails more of its people than any country, including all totalitarian states. We pretend to a war against narcotics, but in truth, we are simply brutalizing and dehumanizing an urban underclass that we no longer need as a labor supply.” In an interview with Bill Moyers, “These really are the excess people in America. Our economy doesn’t need them—we don’t need 10 or 15 percent of our population. And certainly the ones who are undereducated, who have been ill-served by the inner-city school system, who have been unprepared for the technocracy of the modern economy, we pretend to need them. We pretend to educate the kids. We pretend that we’re actually including them in the American ideal, but we’re not. And they’re not foolish. They get it. They understand that the only viable economic base in their neighborhoods is this multibillion-dollar drug trade. In some ways it’s the most destructive form of welfare that we’ve established, the illegal drug trade in these neighborhoods. So as long as they stay in their ghettos and they only kill each other, we’re willing to pay for a police presence to keep them out of our America. And to let them fight over scraps, which is what the drug war, effectively, is. Since we basically have become a market-based culture, that’s what we know, and it’s what’s led us to this sad dénouement. I think we’re going to follow market-based logic right to the bitter end.”

“Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War Two” by Douglas Blackmon is another book I recommend. His book was the answer to the question that he originally asked himself, “What would be revealed if American corporations were examined through the same sharp lens of historical confrontation as the one being trained on German corporations that relied on Jewish slave labor during World War II and the Swiss banks that robbed victims of the Holocaust of their fortunes?” It was “a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion.”

Thank you, Karen, for bringing to our attention “The Jim Crow Guide to Fine Dining.” It merits our attention and action.

Just as Blackmon wrote that “slavery that survived long past emancipation was an offense permitted by the nation,” so, too, is Jim Crow an offense that is permitted by our nation today.

“There is only one way in which one can endure man's inhumanity to man and that is to try, in one's own life, to exemplify man's humanity to man.” - Alan Paton

James Singer said...

Interesting comment Black Swan. I'm obliged to think about the your observations.

Valerie said...

As someone studying psychology, I find it fascinating that someone who is black would be so willing to throw others like himself to the curb without a second glance in order to suck up to the white people who condescend to allow him in their club. I am speaking of both Obama and Otis. How low must their self esteem be to disassociate themselves with their own race? I would pity these men if the consequences of their prejudice didn't hurt so many innocent people. What is Obama afraid of? That the white country club crowd might notice he, too, is black? What is Otis afraid of, that if he hires blacks to wait tables, the whites who eat at his restaurant might notice he isn’t white himself?

I understand your point @Black Swan about the wait staff needing to speak English, but maybe the criteria for waiting tables should be speaking proper English and having a neat, clean and groomed appearance as opposed to someone just not fitting the image of the restaurant. It is totally maddening to be passed over for someone far less qualified and hard-working simply because that person looks “better.” I can only empathise with the frustration of those stuck in the back because of the colour of their skin when all the money (and big tips) are out in the front.

James F Traynor said...

@ Black Swan

Yes, you're correct to some extent and you've hit on the nut of the thing; it's economic ,but racism is a useful tool enabling sociopaths and the just plain greedy to accomplish their end - unjustifiable profit. It helps the greedy in rationalizing their acts, and the proles like to have someone lower than themselves in the pecking order; it makes their misery more bearable. What's that old saying? If you can't kick the master, kick his dog.

I'm delighted that the Giants won the Super Bowl though I feel that a cruel fate unjustly kept Green Bay out of the contest. My wife is overjoyed, she went to high school with Alex Webster in the long ago. It was a hell of a good game.

Denis Neville said...

Jim Crow Housing

Richard Rothstein, Economic Policy Institute, reports that “Manhattan Institute report heralding the ‘end’ of segregation uses a measure that masks important demographic and economic trends,” and “racial segregation continues, and even intensifies.”

The Manhattan Institute attributes the success in reducing racial segregation primarily to legal prohibitions on housing discrimination. However, Rothstein says, “The celebrations are premature.”

“Segregation can only get worse, not better. Because the epidemic of foreclosures has disproportionately affected African Americans, many blacks who were able to move to predominantly white neighborhoods in the last decade will undoubtedly relocate back to poorer and more racially isolated black neighborhoods.”

“The growth of the black middle class and the decline of housing discrimination has permitted more middle-class African Americans to flee the ghetto…But as a result, inner-city ghettos are left without a middle class and are more homogenously poverty-stricken and hopeless…the lack of access to jobs in such neighborhoods led to greater single parenthood (because fewer men could support families) and left children without conventional (middle-class) role models…white workers had little difficulty following jobs to the suburbs, but blacks were barred from doing so by the discriminatory policies of federal, state, and local governments. As a result, only blacks were left to deal with falling retail demand, increasing residential abandonment, rising crime, spreading disorder, increasing welfare dependency, growing family disruption, and rising educational failure that were all concentrated simultaneously in such segregated neighborhoods.”

“A recent study of school reform in Chicago concluded that although much could be accomplished in schools serving disadvantaged students outside neighborhoods of such concentrated poverty, there is little hope of improving children’s education in “truly disadvantaged” neighborhoods… reform programs made little or no difference in schools serving neighborhoods of concentrated poverty where nearly all students moved frequently, were African American, and had low-income parents with relatively little formal education and a high likelihood of unemployment. These communities had high crime rates and inadequate community supports (such as health care and social service providers), and few adults exemplified the benefits of educational attainment.”

“Such neighborhoods have been increasing, not decreasing, in number… More than 40 percent of poor African Americans now live in high-poverty neighborhoods, compared to 15 percent of poor whites who live in such neighborhoods. Poor blacks are therefore nearly three times as likely to be “truly disadvantaged” as poor whites… Low-income black families are now much more isolated from middle-class black families than low-income white families are isolated from middle- and even high-income white families…Middle-class black families are still much more likely to live in neighborhoods with low-income white neighbors than are comparable middle-class white families.”

“These discouraging trends partly reflect growing economic inequality in the nation as a whole—now compounded by the disproportionate harm suffered by African Americans during the post-2007 economic collapse… Race-conscious policy remains necessary to undo the effects of racial residential rules established over the course of a century. Promoting the “end” of segregation, as the Manhattan Institute has done, can only undermine the political will that must be mobilized to embark on this course.”

James F Traynor said...

I think it comes down to this: the boys in the back room made a deal with the blacks (some of the blacks). We'll let you in on the deal, give you some room at the top , but you play by our rules. And our rules are - there's them and there's us. And we come first. Simple.

Denis Neville said...

“With us the two great divisions of society are not rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” - John C. Calhoun

“To appreciate fully the inventiveness of right-wing populism, we have to look to the master class of the Old South. The Slaveholder created a quintessentially American form of democratic feudalism, turning the white majority into a lordly class, sharing in the privileges of prerogatives of governing the slave class. Slaveholders are 'not an exclusive aristocracy,' wrote Daniel Hudley in Social Relations in Our Southern States. 'Every free white man in the whole Union has just as much right to become a Oligarch.' This was not just propaganda: by 1860, James Oakes reminds us in The Ruling Race, there were 400,000 slaveholders in the South, making the American master class one of the most democratic in the world. In the words of Calhoun: 'With us the two great divisions of society are not rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.'" - Corey Robin, The Party of Loss, Harper’s Magazine

“People on the left often fail to realize this, but conservatism really does speak to and for the people who have lost something. It may be a landed estate or the privileges of white skin, the unquestioned authority of a husband or the untrammeled rights of a factory owner. The loss may be as material as money or as ethereal as a sense of standing. It may be a loss of something that was never legitimately owned in the first place; it may, when compared with what the conservative retains, be small…. “All conservatism begins with loss,” Andrew Sullivan rightly notes, which makes conservatism … the party of the loser.” – Cory Robin, The Reactionary Mind

James F Traynor said...

Look for the fractal, the rest is elaboration of the theme.

The Black Swan said...


I think it's more insidious then just inviting a few black people into the club to play by the rules. Just as millions of poor white people constantly for the interests of the wealthy in the hopes that they may be wealthy one day, now black people and other minorities can be sucked into the con as well. Poor people in the ghetto will now be easier to sucker into voting against their interests because one day even they could be president! even they can be the CEO of a massive corporation! Obama and these black CEOs are the great racial equalizers. Just not in the way anyone would hope. They now make everyone Equally susceptible to the great con that is the American Dream.

DW2000 said...

Karen, your article is great.

Denis, these are fantastic sources.
"Slavery by another Name" is incredibly important. And the private prison industry is something straight out of Dickens.

Valerie, I read your comments with great interest. I think you are off the mark here. Obama does not "disassociate himself from his race."

He just sang Al Green, (amazingly well I have to say...and I am no supporter of the guy)

He is married to a very culturally aware Black woman, has a Black attorney general, spoke out about the Gates case off the cuff.

I would also question the phrase "his race." He was raised by a white mother. And the whole concept of "race" is suspect in the eyes of most modern anthropologists.

He does not come from a characteristic African American cultural environment.

The whole question of "Black" is a
loaded one.

I don't endorse this "low self esteem" thing. You can say that about anyone at all...I think he has betrayed students, white workers and Black workers in a very even handed way.

There is a monumental amount wrong with the Obama administration as we all know. But not acting "black" enough or "betraying his race" is not on my list at least.

And yes, he ignores the progressive Black members of congress....and the white ones too!!!!

But we shouldn't feud amongst ourselves.

There is a real enemy out there...God knows.

I salute everyone who comments here.

Valerie said...


I encourage you to read a great article by Bruce Dixon

While I agree with you that classical anthropologists are distancing themselves from race in terms of categorising the characteristics of different races, as a sociological and cultural phenomenon, race is still a huge and recognized issue with cultural anthropologists. You can change the name of the term if you like, but it is an elephant in the room and it shouldn't be ignored. Too many people of colour are falling through the cracks under Obama's watch and he isn’t doing anything to stop it.

Why should Obama be especially attuned to people of colour? Well, because despite his white upbringing, Barry very much exploits his blackness when he wants something from the black community. He does it by implying he is one of them – their highest symbol of the heights a person of colour can reach. Do you really think a white Democrat could go to the Congressional Black Caucus (which is supposed to be representing the interests of their primarily black constituency) and demand that they stop whining, and get out of their robes and bedroom slippers and do what he tells them to do? No, he got away with that because he sells himself as a black man when it is convenient for him to do so. When Obama was elected in 08, the world celebrated because he was the first person of colour to be elected President of the U.S. What I find terribly wrong is that blacks give him their trust, expecting him to watch out for their interests – maybe because they expect him to know what it is like to be discriminated against – and he puts policy after policy into place that hurts people of colour disproportionately.

As for Michelle – when was she being such a strong black woman? When she was sitting on the board of Walmart? Because she is buddy, buddy with Oprah? From what I can see she is a faithful wife – just like Nancy Reagan. Does her loyalty to her( half-)black husband make her a strong black woman? Oh, maybe you were taken in by the photo op putting in the White House garden with a bunch of the poor black kids. I think Michelle tipped her hand when she took her girls on a VERY expensive trip to Europe during the aftermath of Katrina letting those people down in Hurricane Alley” eat cake” while they ate better cake.

But you are right. Obama’s betrayal of those who elected him to office based on his promises along the campaign trail extends beyond people of colour. It was just that the issue of Otis laying off black employees because he didn’t want his restaurant to seem anything other than white, reminded me too much of Obama and his own betrayal of those who expected better of him.

Denis Neville said...

Racial Cleansing in the U.S.A.

The forgotten history of racial cleansing in America, when thousands of Black Americans were driven from their homes and communities by violent, racist mobs. Between 1860 and 1920 hundreds of U.S. counties expelled their black residents.

“Banished: How Whites Drove Blacks Out of Town in America.” Independent Lens, PBS, 2007

And it still occurs. Just in more subtle forms: red-lining, redevelopment, gentrification, gated communities, all-white suburbs, the Katrina Diaspora.