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Dining while black: “Because they tip for ****!”

Monday, May 7, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

Wow. So much for that “post-racial society”. On the heels of the new Duke study about all white juries in Florida convicting black defendants 16% more (still) than juries with even a single black member, we also have a study out of North Carolina State University on what the authors dub “tableside racism”. In other words, if you go out to eat, are you treated differently based on race? In a word, yes.

Here are two questions from a survey conducted of 200 waitstaff working at 18 full-service restaurants in 2004.

“Which is the most ideal race to serve?”

White: 64.7%

“Which is the least ideal race to serve?”

African American: 54.6%

Further, 38.5% said race influenced their manner of waiting on restaurant patrons and 52.8% of servers saw co-workers providing poorer service to African American patrons. More than half of the servers [57%] acknowledged they also had provided poorer service to African American patrons. A 2012 follow-up paper offers specific documentation of waiters paying each other to wait on the “black tables”, discriminatory behaviors clearly evidenced while African American patrons waited to be served, and comments by wait staff clearly evidencing wide-spread bias against African American customers for being poor tippers and “difficult” customers.

Denny’s and Cracker Barrel are perhaps the most well-known of the  restaurant discrimination lawsuits, but a full 23.5% of the 81 published federal court opinions between 1990 and 2002 involved dine-in restaurants. [When fast food restaurants are included, the percentage increases to 36% of the identified opinions.]

It’s a disturbing and intriguing study when we consider the role of race in litigation advocacy. The restaurant servers had multiple negative adjectives to describe African American patrons: picky, demanding, hyper-sensitive, rude, mean, et cetera. It is likely a reflection of the attitudes just beneath the surface for many Americans. Yet, there are some differences:

Our mock jurors often deny bias on their own part but emphatically insist that “the real jurors from this area” will undoubtedly be biased. Over the years, we’ve only had one overtly race-driven conflict in our pretrial research groups but we’ve had a lot of covert conflicts (some of them very thinly veiled).

In this survey, more than half of the servers reported they both saw discrimination by peers and participated (i.e., were discriminatory) themselves. This may reflect the difference between completing questionnaires anonymously and having a face to face discussion with peers and a facilitator. Our mock jurors may simply be (usually) less willing to acknowledge their own biases.

Customer service work is hard. It is likely servers make sweeping generalizations about customers since their salary is largely tip-based. As the researchers say, it behooves restaurants to discourage this sort of behavior and to encourage good service for everyone to avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy where African American customers are lower tippers based on poor service.

Being aware of these stereotypes is important as you prepare your case narrative, introduce your African American client or witness to the jurors, and prepare your witness for testimony. The pervasiveness of racial discrimination is rampant. You have to intervene directly and strategically to have the optimal outcome for your client.

We are a long, long way from being a post-racial society. Until then, we need to plan, assess, investigate, and intervene strategically to keep covert and overt bias from preventing a fair trial.

Brewster, Z., & Rusche, S. (2012). Quantitative Evidence of the Continuing Significance of Race: Tableside Racism in Full-Service Restaurants Journal of Black Studies, 43 (4), 359-384 DOI: 10.1177/0021934711433310

Sarah E. Rusche, & Zachary W. Brewster (2008). ‘Because they tip for shit!’: The Social Psychology of Everyday Racism in Restaurants. Sociology Compass, 2 (6), 2008-2029


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