Combating Racial Discrimination in the Restaurant Industry

Combating Racial Discrimination in the Restaurant Industry: What You Should Know Now

It’s been over 55 years since the pivotal Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins of the Civil Rights Era when African Americans protested “whites only” prohibitions against black patrons in restaurants. Those sit-ins weren’t the first to address blatant racism in restaurants across America, but they did have a significant impact on the entire civil rights movement.

Since then, the law has changed, but in some ways sentiments have not. The 1964 Civil Rights Act has made it illegal across the nation for employers to discriminate on the basis of race in all forms of private employment in companies with 15 or more employees. However, recent reports are showing the restaurant industry is still replete with instances of on-the-job racial discrimination.

Racial Discrimination in the Restaurant Industry

According to the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United), the restaurant industry is a hotbed for racial tension and discrimination. A 2014 study revealed that applicants to restaurants in cities with high minority populations were 77 percent less likely to be hired than whites and could expect 44 percent less in pay.

This year, ROC United released a new study focusing on racism and bias in the California restaurant industry. The study, entitled, “Ending Jim Crow in America’s Restaurants: Racial and Gender Occupational Segregation in the Restaurant Industry,” revealed a 56 percent difference in pay earnings between black and white restaurant employees – with a $4 gap between black women workers and white workers.

Restaurant Racial Discrimination and the Law

The basis for anti-discrimination in the restaurant industry comes from a seminal case on the subject. Katzenbach v. McClung was a Supreme Court case filed in 1964 challenging the Civil Rights Act and its prohibition against segregation in an Alabama restaurant. The Supreme Court held that since segregation in restaurants placed a burden on interstate commerce, it’s considered illegal under the Act.

But the main thing the Civil Rights Act afforded restaurant workers is protection from racial discrimination and harassment in almost all areas of the employment process, including hiring, termination, benefits, promotions and compensation. These are rights which, when violated, can be challenged in a court of law, usually with the assistance of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Ideally, a restaurant with 15 or more employees will abide by the federal mandates of the Civil Rights Act by treating all workers fairly and equally based on the qualifications of a worker or applicant.  This means that if a worker is qualified for a position, factors such as race, religion, sex, cannot be used as factors in the employment decision-making process.

While blatant racial segregation and discrimination today can be rare, other forms could create reasons for the law to step in and equalize. The EEOC explicitly addressed the notion of unconscious racial bias (aka implicit bias) in workgroup plans and in its 2008-2013 E-Race Initiative. The idea is that inherent social norms rooted in discriminatory thinking often guide employment decisions, and courts should be mindful of these biases in determining liability.

Steps A Restaurant Must Take According to the 1964 Civil Rights Act

A restaurant’s anti-discrimination policy is a crucial factor in race discrimination cases. In most cases the policy aims to mimic the wording and spirit of the Civil Rights Act outlining the areas where discrimination is prohibited – namely race, color, sex, national origin, age, disability and religion.

However, a company may fail to adhere to its own policy regarding race and other forms of discrimination, prompting grievance procedures, EEOC claims and lawsuits. Because settlements can usually be very large, companies are well advised to take precautions in ensuring that employees are protected and managers and supervisors are well trained on workplace fairness and equality.

Though not mandated under federal law, bias training and diversity awareness training are policies that many companies consider as preventative measures to guard against race discrimination in the workplace. Indeed, the EEOC often requires such training, as well as posted anti-discrimination policy, in the wake of a settlement decision or successful lawsuit against restaurants and companies that violate the law.

Restaurant Racial Discrimination and the EEOC

The restaurant industry may need to brace itself for more and more attention from the EEOC and the courts. The government watchdog agency has recently concentrated its forces on industries where employment discrimination is endemic and is actively targeting its investigations on systemic, rather than individual, forms of employment discrimination.

The increased scrutiny might have a broad effect on the restaurant industry if a familiar EEOC target pattern follows. When the EEOC steps into an employment discrimination claim with a systemic investigation, the result is often a chilling response from the industry. Employers tend to reconsider their policies in light of large settlements in an employee’s favor.

Restaurant Employees: Ways to Face Racial Discrimination Head-on

Ultimately, restaurant employees combating race discrimination in the workplace can turn to the the Civil rights Act for protection. With the assistance of an employment discrimination attorney, any employee working for a company with 15 or more employees can file a claim of race discrimination against an employer with the EEOC using the Act. the process proceeds with an EEOC investigation into the claim and a decision by the EEOC to either take on the case or issue a notice allowing the employee to pursue the matter in court.

Employees also have state law as a legal resource against race discrimination in the restaurant group.  For example, in California, workers are protected under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), a state law prohibiting discrimination and harassment on the basis of race as well as a number of other categories such as sexual orientation and gender identity. Unlike the federal Civil Rights Act, the FEHA accommodates claims from workers at companies with five employees or more.


Workers with state law claims in California must file a claim through the Department of Fair Housing and Employment. It’s important to keep in mind the law requires that claims be filed no less than one year from the last date of discrimination or harassment. To understand both the federal and state law procedures for moving forward with a claim regarding race discrimination in the restaurant industry, contact an employment discrimination attorney as soon as possible.


Manuela Varela

Relations Manager

Manuela Varela has been with Shegerian & Associates since August 2022. She is responsible for outreach and marketing on behalf of the firm and manages relationships between firms and referring attorneys. She is also responsible for developing business opportunities and affiliations. Manuela graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a degree in Economics and Political Science.