After decades of Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally outlawed racial segregation in public and private spaces in the United States. Prior to the Act’s passage, many restaurants across the South either refused to serve black customers, only allowed them to order take-out, or separated them from white customers with solid partitions and separate entrances. After the law’s passage, the majority of restaurants complied with the new law.
There were, however, a history of exceptions.
One restaurant – Ollie’s Barbecue in Birmingham, Alabama – went so far as to sue the federal government. Ollie McClung Jr., who owned Ollie’s Barbecue with his father, was afraid that “seating blacks would drive away white patrons,” according to NPR. To McClung, the decision to sue had nothing to do with civil rights, but was instead about the federal government going in and “tell[ing] us what to do. We’re a local business.”
McClung won an initial round in the United States District Court of the Northern District of Alabama, which issued an injunction preventing the federal government from enforcing the Civil Rights Act against his restaurant. But he eventually lost at the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously against McClung and his family.
Even today, nearly 50 years later, Mr. McClung is disappointed by the ruling and “feels much the same” (“Still think they got it wrong”). Turns out, unsurprisingly, “integration didn’t hurt the restaurant,” and it also didn’t “increase black clientele.” Ollie’s Barbecue closed its doors in 2001.
While we may no longer have solid partitions and separate entrances, segregation still exists in America’s restaurants. Restaurant workers are effectively segregated by race and gender by a partition between livable-wage server and bartender positions and poverty-wage busser, runner, and kitchen positions.
In the U.S., the restaurant industry employs nearly 11 million workers and is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy. Despite the industry’s growth, however, restaurant workers occupy seven of the ten lowest-paid occupations as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Disadvantaged by minimum wage laws, which allow tipped workers to be paid as little as $2.13 per hour, the end-result is that restaurant workers experience poverty at nearly three times the rate of workers overall.
The plight of America’s restaurant workers is not shared equally, however.
Nationally, 66% of the total labor force is white, while in the restaurant industry, this number is 55%. Latinos make up 16% of the national labor force, but make up 25% of the restaurant workforce. The increased diversity does not translate, however, into better wages. Over 80% of management and 78% of higher-level non-management positions – such as captain, manager, and bartender – are occupied by white workers.
It shall be unlawful to conduct a restaurant or other place for the serving of food in the city, at which white and colored people are served in the same room, unless such white and colored persons are effectually separated by a solid partition extending from the floor upward to a distance of seven feet or higher, and unless a separate entrance from the street is provided for each compartment. – Jim Crow Law, Alabama
In contrast, workers of color are concentrated in the lowest paid positions in both the front and back-of-the-house (e.g., food preparation staff, dishwashers, cleaners, bussers, and runners). African American workers earn the lowest wages in these positions; but even when they occupy positions that are supposed to pay the highest wages (e.g., chefs, cooks, waitstaff, hosts), they are paid lower than their white counterparts. And while Latino workers have higher average wages than African Americans in the lowest paid positions, where they are largely concentrated, they earn the lowest wages in front-of-the-house occupations.
In California, the substantial wage inequality among restaurant workers presents the most directly observable occupational segregation. Examining restaurant wages by race and gender in California, women of color earned $10.13 per hour on average, compared to $11.30 for white women, while men of color earned $11.63 on average, compared to $14.18 for white men. Overall, after adjusting for education and language proficiency, workers of color receive 56% lower earnings when compared to equally qualified white workers.
As the data above indicates, segregation extends beyond racial lines and into gender. Women make up 52% of all restaurant workers, but are disproportionately in service positions, accounting for 64% of all front-of-the-house occupations. Again, however, this does not translate into better wages.
The average front-of-the-house male worker in 2013 earned $12.95 per hour, compared to only $9.81 for women in front-of-the-house positions (or 76% of the average male wage). In back-of-the-house positions, the wage differential is less, but still pronounced. The average man in back-of-the-house occupations earned $10.81 per hour, compared to the average woman who earned $9.51 per hour (or 88% of the average male wage). The result: Women in the restaurant industry are 47% less likely to earn a living wage in front-of-the-house occupations, and experience a gender tax of 11% lower earnings than their equally qualified male counterparts.
All of this points to one, inescapable conclusion. Over 50 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, there remains significant gender and racial inequality in America’s restaurants.
The reasons for this inequality are varied. Some employers exhibit explicit bias in their hiring and promotion decisions, perhaps in response to perceived customer discrimination; others exhibit implicit bias, where unexamined, unconscious biases lead employers to accept or rationalize current employment patterns; and some experience a genuine lack of qualified candidates that functionally might prevent workers of color from advancing to higher paying occupations.
Regardless of the reason, one thing is clear: the industry can do better. It is time to end the segregation that pervades the restaurant industry, and insure that women and workers of color are provided genuine opportunities leading to equitable outcomes.