Butter with a Side of Racism – Workplace Descrimination Beyond the Paula Dean Case

TV chef Paula Deen is the most recent celebrity to become caught in a scandal related to racist language or behavior. In breaking the story, most news outlets have emphasized Deen’s deposed statements admitting that she has used racial epithets for blacks, describing her admiration for a restaurant that evoked Civil War era-racial imagery of black men in service professions, and her fear that her wish to plan a wedding around that theme would be “misinterpreted.”


However, many reports overlook an important aspect of this story—the way in which it reveals the persistence of ongoing racial discrimination at work.

Talking Points Memo provides one of the few links I have seen that offers critical details about the employment discrimination aspects of this story. Along with the actual transcript of Deen’s remarks, TPM notes that former employee Lisa Jackson contends that she suffered “violent, sexist, and racist behavior” during her tenure with Deen’s company. Specifically, from TPM:


“The complaint alleged ‘racially discriminatory attitudes pervade’ Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House where Jackson claimed African-American employees were required to use separate bathrooms and entrances from white staffers. Jackson also said African-Americans were held to ‘different, more stringent, standards’ than whites at the restaurant and that [Deen’s brother Bubba Hiers, a co-owner] regularly made offensive racial remarks … Along with the allegations of racism, Jackson’s complaint accuses Hiers of making inappropriate sexual comments and forcing her to look at pornography with him. The complaint also said Hiers violently shook employees on multiple occasions and came to work in an “almost constant state of intoxication.” Jackson’s complaint also accuses Deen of racism and enabling Hiers’ behavior. According to the complaint, Deen and other managers at her companies ignored Jackson’s attempts to discuss Hiers’ behavior.

Although these examples are disappointing, when viewed in the context of what we know about racial and gender discrimination in the workplace, they are far from shocking.


Jackson’s story, unfortunately, is fairly consistent with the commonplace methods of racial and gender employment discrimination that occur today.


Sociologist Vinnie Roscigno has found that despite existing antidiscrimination laws and policies, one of the key ways that racial and gender discrimination persist at work is through selective and differential enforcement of workplace rules and norms. That is, black workers and women workers of all races are frequently held to standards, rules, and expectations that are not in place for their white male colleagues. Further, managers are often complicit in these situations or refuse to enact sanctions that would create a non-discriminatory workplace.


At the same time, it is also worth noting that legal standards for proving discrimination have become increasingly stricter. Sociologist Wendy Leo Moore writes about the ways contemporary “colorblind” interpretations of the law help reinforce racial inequality, and notes that it is now incumbent upon plaintiffs to prove that employers intentionally and purposely engaged in racial discrimination. Since it is virtually standard for companies to craft public statements stating that they do not discriminate, it is extremely difficult for plaintiffs to meet the standard of proof.


These sociological studies indicate that cases of differential treatment and harassment, such as those described byPaul Dean’s former employee Lisa Jackson,  are commonplace examples of workplace discrimination rather than rare exceptions.

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