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Rinku Sen Headshot

Racism Stinks Up New York Restaurants

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On Tuesday, I spoke at the release of The Great Service Divide, a revealing new study of racial discrimination segregation in New York City's restaurant industry. The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY), which I wrote about in The Accidental American, sent matched pairs of applicants -- one white, one of color and virtually the same in every other way -- to apply for front of the house jobs in 327 high-end restaurants. The predictable results are still shocking. The people of color were half as likely to get offers, and less likely to get interviewed in the first place. The interviews of white applicants were more work focused and less skeptical about the truth of their resumés. The vast majority of managers were white males. Hence, we see the path to the racial hierarchy of restaurants, obvious to all who choose to look. Much of the discussion was about how we could focus on the impact of hiring practices, instead of on the employer's intention, which we can never really know. Although there were some terrible stories of blatant racism and sexism (we're only looking for Italian looking men today), the lead investigator Mark Bendick pointed out that most of the behavior was heavily coded and not obviously intentional. These days, people know that blatant discrimination is illegal and they take pains not to go there. But our unconscious biases persist and become deeply embedded in restaurant culture in the notion that diners want pretty servers, and pretty means white, or that diners find French accents more charming than Mexican ones. These unconscious biases are hard to rout out. A few years ago I met one of the principles of Harvard's implicit bias study, who said that even after working on this question for so many years, his own biases still show up when he takes the online test. We can only change our ideas about who belongs where, he said, is to explicitly remind ourselves that actual human beings defy those assumptions -- the essential idea behind matched pair testing. Social psychologists also tell us that these frames are hard wired into our brains, and that we dismiss facts that contradict the frame. When managers hear that Windows on the World (where ROC-NY founders worked until September 11) was the nation's highest grossing restaurant with a multiracial, multilingual, transnational workforce at every level, if that fact doesn't match up to their dominant frame, they will continue to hire only tall white people at the front of the house. This is why we have anti-discrimination laws and why ROC proposes internal job posting as a new restaurant practice. Katie Grieco, VP of Operations in Tom Colicchio's Craft Worldwide Holdings, said that looking out for their employees is the first priority, because long term profit and reputation emerge from a happy and prosperous workforce. ROC-NY has done us a great service with the Great Service Divide. Diners can help solve the problem by first taking a conscious look around your favorite high-end restaurant, asking some questions about how people get jobs and promotions, and referring owners to this study. The only way to battle unconscious bias is to be explicit and set new standards.

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