This Is Bigger Than Paula Deen

We have spent time discussing, debating, and arguing over Paula Deen. From print pundits to cable-news talking heads, much has been said of the TV personality’s use of the “N-Word,” her firing from the Food Network, and whether “in her heart she is a racist.”

But a closer look at the details of the civil suit brought against Deen and her Southern food empire suggests a bigger and more troubling problem than the privately held beliefs of a single person.

Paula Deen symbolizes the
injustices plaguing the entire restaurant industry.

While employed by Deen’s parent company, Paula Deen Enterprises, plaintiff Lisa Jackson alleges that she was subjected and witness to racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Pornography was regularly visible in the workplace; sexist comments were commonplace. Jackson claimed that in one instance, in which she was made responsible for catering the wedding of Bubba Heirs (Deen’s brother), Deen described the style she was looking for in the following way.

Well what I would really like is a bunch of little niggers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around. Now that would be a true southern wedding, wouldn’t it? But we can’t do that because the media would be on me about that.

Deen denies the specifics, but this isn’t the only accusation made. The lawsuit claims that:

—Black employees are forbidden from using the customer bathroom; white employees are allowed to use any bathroom

—African Americans assigned to the back of the house are forbidden from going to locations where customers can see them

—Racial slurs were commonplace

The racially hostile environment depicted in the Jackson lawsuit is corroborated to an important degree by an independent inquiry into The Lady and Sons, Deen’s famed restaurant in Savannah, Georgia. An attorney for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a national civil-rights organization, said he discovered “evidence of systemic racial discrimination and harassment.”

He found that Deen and her managers regularly referred one black cook as “my little monkey.” According to one current and two former employees, Deen pays and promotes black and white workers differently. Deen also “preferred white and light-skinned blacks” to work with customers while “darker-skinned blacks were relegated to ‘back-of-the-house operations.'”

The issue, said Rainbow PUSH attorney Robert Patillo in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, isn’t Deen’s racist worldview. The issue is the potential for a powerful individual’s racist worldview to manifest itself into discriminatory workplace policies. A black worker threatened to report the restaurant to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and was told: “You don’t have any civil rights here.” Other workers also feared retaliation.

“It’s a free country,” Patillo said of Deen’s language. “We have freedom of speech, and you can say what you want. Our issue is whether that mindset has filtered into employment decisions.”

That is what we should be talking about, not Deen’s contemptible word choice. More broadly, she symbolizes the injustices plaguing the entire restaurant industry.

The evidence is mounting. Restaurants are clearly segregated. Servers, bartenders, and hosts are white. In the back—washing dishes, preparing food—are people of color. It is a plainly obvious and scandalous fact of life to anyone who goes out to eat and drink.

A study of New York restaurants found racial discrimination in effect 31 percent of the time. According to Saru Jayarman, almost 80 percent of white workers enjoy jobs in the front, which not only pay better and lead to greater promotion but are generally safer. This in stark contrast to the experience of Latino workers—two-thirds are relegated to the back of the house.

Restaurants are stratified, too. Whites get the highest wages. People of color the lowest. Of those who have reported earning less than minimum wage, 96 percent are workers of color.

A recent report from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers found that Darden Restaurants (the parent company of Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Capital Grille, among others) was responsible for creating a racially hostile environment, in which “employees of color were repeatedly pelted with racial slurs such as ‘Aunt Jemima’ and ‘stupid n**ger’ by managers.” A 2007 lawsuit against Manhattan restaurateur Daniel Boulud accused him and his managers of regularly using racial epithets. Racist environments are a reality within America’s restaurant industry.

And the industry is also rife with sexism. Women typically earn 85 cents on the dollar to male counterparts. They are relegated to the lowest-paying jobs with the worst chances of upward mobility. Women are subjected to sexual harassment as well. Although only 7 percent of the nation’s workers can be found in restaurants, they accounted for 37 percent of the sexual harassment complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2011.

Deen’s use of racial slurs matters and warrants condemnation.

But this should be the beginning of the conversation, not the end.


David J. Leonard is associate professor and chair in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author most recently of After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness (SUNY Press). Follow him @drdavidjleonard.

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