Is It Okay for Restaurants to Racially Profile Their Employees? A New Freakonomics Radio Episode

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(Photo: Cory Doctorow)

(Photo: Cory Doctorow)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “Is It Okay for Restaurants to Racially Profile Their Employees?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) The gist of the episode: We seem to have decided that ethnic food tastes better when it’s served by people of that ethnicity (or at least something close). Does this make sense — and is it legal?

A listener from Salt Lake City named Bailie Hicken wrote in with an observation that I’m guessing many of you have also wondered about:

I was in L.A. last night at a sushi bar and I noticed [that] everyone working here is Asian. In fact everyone at every sushi restaurant I have ever been to — which is probably a lot, because I love sushi — is Asian. I mean I get it — it is part of the ambiance of eating at a Japanese restaurant. Nobody wants sushi made by a white guy; they just don’t. If it isn’t made by a Japanese guy with a goatee, it is a fail. So a prerequisite for being hired is that you are Asian? Just an assumption. So why is it okay that some restaurants can hire only Asians at a Japanese restaurant, but if someone wanted to hire all white, or “American-looking” people at, let’s say, some very Americanized restaurant, then people would be pissed? Or all black, all women, all gay, whatever really. How do the Asians get away with it? Let it be noted that my grandpa is Japanese, so I am a quarter, and I love the Asians. I just thought it was interesting, and somehow felt like I should write you an email about it so that you could possibly find some answers for me. A girl can dream right?

We took Bailie’s questions to heart and set out to explore the issue of racial profiling in restaurant hiring — not just at sushi restaurants but lots of different kinds of restaurants (Chinese, Mexican, Indian, etc.) where the servers generally look like they come from the place where the food comes from (even if they don’t actually come from there!).

We begin with a visit to two of my favorite neighborhood restaurants on the Upper West Side of Manhattan: Gabriela’s Restaurant and Tequila Bar and Elizabeth’s Neighborhood Table. I talk with the proprietors, the husband-wife team of Nat and Liz O. Milner. Nat comes from a distinguished New York restaurant family and firmly believes that waitstaff ethnicity is an important part of the whole dining experience:

NAT MILNER: When you walk in to Gabriela’s, you don’t want to see me. I mean, you’re looking to see Gabriela. … I have red curly hair and a red beard and … I think there is something to say about that, that people want to come to a Mexican restaurant and be surrounded by Spanish-speaking people with dark hair, right?

As Milner makes clear, a lot of this ethnic-specific restaurant hiring happens by self-selection — i.e., Latino employees find their way to Mexican restaurants, Asian employees find their way to Japanese restaurants, etc. — but what if such hiring is more systematic and, potentially, discriminatory? That’s the question we ask of John J. Donohue III, a Stanford Law professor (who’s also, handily for our purposes, an economist):

DUBNER: I could imagine  there would be some people out there — based on nothing more than what their face looks like — who say, you know, I would have loved to have a job waiting tables in a sushi restaurant, or a Mexican restaurant, or an Italian restaurant, but because I don’t look Asian, or I don’t look Latino, or I don’t look Italian,  those were off-limits to me. So could you imagine a time in the perhaps not-too-distant future where this kind of hiring practice is looked at as unacceptable and perhaps even illegal?

DONOHUE: Certainly could happen, and … the statute is pretty clear. And if you’re taking ethnicity into account without some of these other possible defenses being present [e.g., firm size], you are technically subject to an employment discrimination lawsuit … Interestingly, we haven’t seen much in the way of litigation in these small, ethnic cuisine scenarios.”

But as we learn from Justine Lisser of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, there has been some such litigation:

LISSER: We sued a Houston restaurant … which was supposed to be an upscale Mexican restaurant that fired already-hired servers, one of whom was African-American, one of whom was Vietnamese, because they quote “didn’t speak Spanish” … But it had an extremely diverse group of patrons. It certainly didn’t have only a Spanish-speaking group of patrons. And the reason of not speaking Spanish was, we were alleging, was a pretext to make sure that all of their servers were Hispanic — again, to sort of fit in with the theme. And this is not legal. I mean, for any restaurant, or any employer to put in a requirement like a language requirement, it has to be — and this is the legal phrase of art, “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” And in most instances, it is not job-related and consistent with business necessity.

You’ll also hear from the American-Irish comedian Des Bishop, who got a job as a greeter at a Chinese restaurant, in China, and did not like how he was greeted. And Steve Levitt talks about the kind of restaurant he’d be most likely to open (fast-food, naturally) and how he’d go about hiring ethnic-appropriate waiters and waitresses if he opened a Swedish restaurant in America.

LEVITT: If I have a Swedish restaurant I want to fill it up not just with people who are tall and blond, but who have nice Swedish accents as well, whether they’re real or fake.

DUBNER: And so how do you advertise for those jobs in the paper?

[VERY LONG PAUSE]

LEVITT: Haha. Um…

DUBNER: That was the longest pause I’ve ever heard out of Steve Levitt and I have heard some long pauses out of Steve Levitt.

Don’t worry, Levitt comes up with an answer eventually.


Andrew White

At 22:30 - it seems that discrimination and discrimination's effects are being conflated. While I would agree that an Asian restaurant hiring all Asian people, or a Mexican restaurant hiring all Mexican/Latino people, does not have the effects that we generally worry about with discrimination - it does not follow that this is not the type of discrimination we generally worry about. The effect of a thing is not the same as that thing itself.

It also bears asking; Is the self-imposition of Latino people applying for jobs in Latino restaurants, and similarly for other minorities, due to experience or an expectation that they will not get jobs at other restaurants - or that they will have a higher likelihood of being hired due to their ethnicity. And if either of those two options is the case, or both, is there a meaningful and important difference that something should be done about? Socially, not legally - as the legal means is already out there [as noted later in the podcast].

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Nicolás Antonio Jiménez

Great episode.
I do wish, though, that you'd gotten more perspectives from diners about whether and why ethnicity matters to them when they visit restaurants that serve food they identify with. For instance, Chinese people in the U.S. visiting Chinese restaurants, or Cubans (like me) visiting Cuban ones. Seemed to me like an omission that — at least given my own experience and perspective being from/dining in Miami and having lived/dined in the Midwest (where there are lots of Cuban dishes that are Cuban in name only and served by non-Cubans) for a long time — affected the piece.
Ultimately, I think that it comes down to credibility. Consumers who like being served Latin food by any kind of Hispanic might only feel that way because they don't realize how disparate (and, in a culinary sense) irrelevant each Spanish-speaking country's culture is from the next. If they knew, they might feel — as so many Hispanics and Asians do — that a staff hailing from the wrong country is an automatic red flag. Just a red flag, of course — not a guarantee of a bad meal.
Language matters, too, even if NONE of the customers speak Spanish or Mandarin of Japanese or whatever the relevant tongue might be. If I'm running a Cuban restaurant, I want to know that I don't need to train my employees on what words mean. And I strongly prefer for each person to have a lifetime of experience eating Cuban food when he or she offers recommendations and guidance to uninitiated diners.
Of course, all that's possible without any connection to Cuba. But it's far less likely.
All that said, I really did enjoy this. Loved the portion about the comic in China and his experience as a greeter.

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Christian Nordtomme

Interesting show.

I think everyone (guests, hiring managers, podcast hosts) underestimates the degree to which perception shapes reality, however – and vice versa.

I'm Norwegian. 6' tall. Dark blonde hair. Fair complection (that admittedly tans easily, but moderately). Green-ish eyes.

When I worked in an American restaurant in Paris, I was often mistaken for American, German and Swedish (and lots of other things).

However, when I worked at a Lebanese restaurant in Oslo, less than six months later, I was mistaken for Lebanese on multiple occasions.

And when I worked at an Italian restaurant in San Francisco, some time after that, I was mistaken for Italian. But when I mentioned that to the chef's wife (a blonde, Caucasian Texan), she was surprised to learn I was really Norwegian, because she said I looked so 'All-American'.

People want their expectations met, and that works both ways: They'll go to great lengths (in hiring, selecting and self-selecting) to make reality fit their image of how it 'should' be. And when reality can't be made to fit, they'll make stuff up to fill in the blanks. :-)

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James

I think you missed out on something from the original question, about sushi chefs, or 'itamae'. It takes years of training to become a traditional itamae, which is hard to come by outside Japan.

Israel

Did I miss the section about Hooters hiring policy?

Erin Sweet

I am white and worked at an upscale local Chinese restaurant for 3 years and I can't tell you how many times people would ask why I worked there because I'm not Chinese. We were a very multicultural front of the house. A couple whites, a black/ Filipino woman, a Filipino man, an adopted Korean guy, and the owner's children are half Chinese and half white. The husband of the half Chinese half white manager who helped on busy days is Scottish! Virginia Beach is a pretty diverse place. I got a job there because I was neighbors with the bar tender. I loved working there, they became like family and even helped me with my wedding.

JT

Why is "American-looking" equivalent to all white? It's an idiotic assumption. Please, next time do ask about Caucasian restaurants, instead of American restaurants.

Otherwise the episode is very interesting.

Paul Schloemer

Didn't Hooters lose a lawsuit because a man who wanted a waiting job didn't add the value of looking like a Hooters girl? Isn't that the same thing?

Paul Schloemer

Never mind. Should have waited until the end of the podcast. I guess Hooters lost that suit?

R.N. Kebede

Too bad you narrowed your criteria for your imaginary Swedish restaurant to just "Swedish-looking" people. Had it not been illegal to use those criteria, in your imaginary scenario, you would have eliminated one of the better known Swedish chefs in the U.S.-- Marcus Samuelsson. He happens to be black and also Swedish! Perhaps a good solution would have been to suggest that candidates possess a knowledge of the cuisine they are serving/making? Maybe customers coming to your imaginary restaurant to gawk at tall blondes would have been disappointed, but perhaps would have come away understanding a bit more about the diversity of the world. And probably a better understanding of Swedish food than if your primary criteria was just "Swedish-looking." I know that's not the point of the podcast but...

Erika

What's interesting is that here in NYC, there are not a lot of Japanese compared to other types of Asians -- and maybe it's in part due to that, but a lot of the sushi restaurants here are owned and operated by Koreans, Chinese, or Thai. You can tell generally if you look on the menu and see food from those cuisines on there. The waitstaff are often people of the same ethnicities as the owners of the restaurants, and the kitchen staff tend to be Latino. As a Japanese-American I find that to be pretty interesting. There's also kind of a basic understanding among Japanese people (maybe even other Asians) of which places are the Japanese-owned, more authentic restaurants so we can get our fix of homestyle food or fancy sushi.

I actually have worked at a Chinese restaurant as a greeter. Most people didn't realize I was not Chinese, and the ones who did come to know were confused as to why I was working there. I was a teenager; why not? It wasn't bad money and the owners were nice people.

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Dennis

The reason Japanese restaurants also tend to be owned by other Asian ethnicities does boil down to economics. If you look at trending of Asian ethnic foods and the "fusion" phenomenon, Japanese food is more popular and also reaps the highest mark up.

Steve Miller

Thanks for this episode. I found it very interesting as an American living abroad in a country where discrimination is legal (South Korea).

Want to hire a white, American, female, under-30 English teacher? Place an ad. The expat community will complain about the practice, but it's perfectly legal. It goes beyond that with some bars having placards stating "No Foreigners."

But what I found most interesting is the notion that one expects seeing a person of a particular ethnicity in a restaurant. That's not something I really thought about when I lived in Arizona and when in Seoul, it doesn't even enter into the equation.

I never think about seeing Latino staff when dining at a Tex-Mex restaurant, whether it be a big franchise like On The Border or something like Vatos, which is run by Korean-Americans from California and Texas. In fact, when I shop at Costco, I am often taken by surprise when I see American execs visiting the Yangjae store (the busiest and most prophetical location).

Again, perceptions shift based on experiences and location.

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Cookie

I usually adore this podcast but it was very upsetting to hear some antiquated notions of what "ethnic" means.

Ethnic food doesn't mean anything. All food is of a certain ethnicity. This term treats white as a "default" ethnicity whereas everyone else falls into "other," or "ethnic." It's quite silly.

Comments like "I love the Asians" to defend your objectifying remarks or "All Asian restaurant waiters are Asian-looking" even though that could mean anything from Indians to Pakistanis to Japanese, or saying that chimichangas are your favorite Mexican food. Chimichangas aren't even a Mexican food. They are very Tex-Mex, which is not the same thing.

This episode had a very white-centric perspective on things. It was disappointing.

Lauren

There is no right or wrong perspective on this topic. As our world evolves, things like this start to happen. A family business will naturally reflect their culture and race, while if a corporation opened a chain of restaurants, they would have to purposely fulfill expectations of merchants by hiring people of that background. How can you tell a restaurant chain they are wrong for doing the same thing as a family owned restaurant? They are simply recreating an atmosphere. I do understand why some would disagree, but is it really something you can stop or change? It's how the world works. It's science.

financewhiz

Thought provoking!

John Bloom

I think that the reason people want food at a Mexican restaurant to be served by Latinos is rooted in authenticity. We want to feel like the place that we are going is the real deal. We don't want any Mexican food, we want to be transported to Mexico to eat food there and if the restaurant can do that we feel like it is more authentic.

There are two books by Joseph Pine (Authenticity and The Experience Economy) that highlight authenticity as the major driver in today's economy. He goes through a series of economic driving forces in different time periods and lands on what he calls the experience economy and the major driving force of the experience economy is authenticity. As I listened to the podcast it made me think that consumers really are driving this trend. I don't know if it will change either. Unless we were told that most wait staff in mexico is white male we wouldn't feel like being served by one in a Mexican restaurant was as authentic. And if authenticity is really driving the economy then there really is a dollar amount attached to hiring the right race.

I am not saying that it is right. I just agree there is sound logic in assuming the roots are in economics.

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Chaiwala

This is extremely euro/white-centric in how you FRAME and EXPLORE this topic. You need to imagine the realities of immigrant people and why they run their restaurants the way that they do. You need to imagine the uncomfortableness of interacting with people outside of their community while building a life in a new country. You also need to understand that your conception of "white" cultures (Sweden) is changing because its 2015 and there are immigrants everywhere. The questions you pose to immigrant restaurant owners are poorly designed, leading, and unimaginative.

The title of this podcast is a leading question to which the answer is no and you open the write-up with the phrase "american looking," which while in quotes still perpetuates the idea that american means white. You also place the burden of assimilating on minority communities whereas the burden should be on people who have more social power. Your implication regarding why white people cant open a restaurant of white cuisine is the equivalent of "if there is BET, why isn't there white entertainment?"

You guys are a respectable institution that influences many people and how they think about many different issue. This was a very irresponsibly produced show. Please take care next time. Maybe hire someone "ethnic" to help out.

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Robin S

I’m surprised no one mentioned this: I think people may prefer to see servers of at least the approximate ethnicity in ethnic restaurants, not because they reflect the authenticity of the restaurant directly, but because they might be assumed to reflect the degree of authenticity of the kitchen staff, particularly the lead chefs or cooks.

This is my thought process, even tough it’s illogical on 2 counts: you have no idea who’s in the kitchen based on the front-of-the-house staff, and you don’t even have an idea of how authentically they cook. (You wouldn’t want to go to an "authentic American restaurant” anywhere filled with cooks like me in the kitchen!)