Feature Week of May 9, 2004
WHAT THE CRACKER BARREL CASE SAYS ABOUT AMERICA’S CIVIL RIGHTS AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
No matter how much blacks move up America’s social structure, issues of racial discrimination still occur.
The latest incidence of broad-based discrimination is being played out in a lawsuit involving the Department of Justice, the NAACP and the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain. Known for its country-style cooking and folksy retail stores, Tennessee-based Cracker Barrel Old Country Store has agreed to wide-ranging steps to combat discrimination charges by many of its black diners. While admitting no wrongdoing, the $1.9 billion-a-year chain has agreed to engage in new training programs, random testing by undercover diners, the posting of nondiscrimination statements on menus, and hiring of an outside auditor to rid itself of the discrimination lawsuit.
The case against Cracker Barrel, which operates 497 stores in 41 states, was brought by the NAACP, a major beneficiary of a similar discriminatory judgment against Denny’s restaurants. The 1993 case against the 1,500-chain Denny’s yielded $54 million in damages to plaintiffs and $1 billion in jobs and contracts to minorities. In the Cracker Barrel case, over 400 witnesses in more than 200 cities provided evidence in support of black plaintiffs' allegations.
"To discriminate on the basis of race in the provision of food and service tramples most gravely not only on the civil rights laws but also our nation's promise of equality," said R. Alexander Acosta, the Justice Department Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights with whom Cracker Barrel reached the agreement. The agreement requires no admission of wrongdoing or payment of fines or penalties.
Despite the fact that minorities have made substantial economic and social progress over the past 30 years, discrimination is still a central part of the average African American’s “national experience”. Even though upwards of a quarter million African Americans now have earning power that excess of $100,000 a year, they too, fall prey to the significant disadvantages based on race that continue to persist within the United States. It's estimated that every African American experiences about 200 incidents a year, from slurs hurled at them by passing motorists to cashiers who won't put change in their hand, and a variety of other actions. While claims that the nation has achieved a color-blind society are often put forth by this new black upper-class, such claims appear premature, as evidence indicating that discrimination based on race and ethnicity lingers.
"This (case) moves us forward in a direction we were already going," says Norm Hill, an African American vice president of Cracker Barrel. "It allows both sides to avoid protracted and costly litigation." Hill, the company’s highest-ranking black, serves as senior vice president of human resources for CBRL Group, Inc., the parent company for restaurant concepts Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc. and Logan’s Roadhouse, Inc. Hill joined the company in 1996. He says: "Cracker Barrel has 50,000 employees serving 180 million guests a year, and from all of this contact we average only about 30 guest complaints a year that touch on the issue of racial discrimination. We look into and take steps through our guest relations or employee-relations people to correct every complaint that comes to us."
Hill is an example of the corporate executive-level progress African Americans have made since the 1960s. He is in a position to push African American involvement in all phases of the company’s operations. He has an extensive and accomplished background in human resources. Prior to joining Cracker Barrel, he held positions such as Vice President of Human Resources for Denny’s, Perkins Family and Tony Roma’s Restaurants; and was Group Director of Human Resources for Burger King Corporation; and Director of Human Resources for Firestone Tire. A veteran of the Air Force, Hill is a graduate of the University of Akron.
The agreement Cracker Barrel made will last five years and requires, among other things, that the chain's employees undergo expanded racial diversity training and those procedures to investigate patrons' complaints be improved. The company also will hire an outside firm to send agents acting as customers into restaurants to check on Cracker Barrel employees. The NAACP-spurred investigation found evidence of such problems at more than 50 restaurants in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Acosta said 80 percent of the employees or former employees interviewed in the probe said they had witnessed or experienced discriminatory treatment at Cracker Barrel restaurants.
NAACP President and CEO, Kweisi Mfume says the group welcomes Cracker Barrel’s decision to enter into the agreement, but says the restaurant chain should provide compensation for past discrimination victims. An agreement to channel 13 percent of advertising and supplier monies to African American contractors would also help allay past discriminatory practices.
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