This restaurant is charging people based on their race

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Moya Lothian-McLean
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A social experiment with a delicious twist. 

The gender pay gap receives a lot of airtime. It’s not going to be closed anytime soon - 126 years was the last estimate – but at the very least the Western world has started confronting pay inequity with real action

But other, less well-reported, financial imbalances exist. And racial wealth disparity is just as pervasive as the gender pay gap, especially if you happen to be both a woman and a member of a ethnic minority group. In the UK, ethnic minority households earn up to £8,900 less than their white British counterparts, with Bangladeshi households reporting incomes that were 35% lower than the white British average. 

The situation is the same over the pond. Which is why white customers approaching one New Orleans restaurant may find themselves paying a higher price for their meal than they bargained for – and come away with a lesson in wealth distribution. 

Patrons who approach chef Tunde Wey’s Nigerian pop-up, Saartj (a reference to Saartjie Baartman, a 17th century South African woman who was paraded around Europe as ‘Hottentot Venus’ during her lifetime), in outdoor food hall, Roux Carre, are first informed the stall exists to educate people on wealth disparity. He then asks white-identifying customers to pay $30 for their meal, in line with with the median income for white households in New Orleans, which is $61,117. African-American people and customers from other minority groups are charged $12, to reflect their average household income of $27,812. 

White customers do have the choice to plump for the $12 fee but Wey says 80% of them opt to pay the higher price, which is redistributed to ethnic minority individuals purchasing food from the stall. 

“Some of them are enthusiastic, some of them are bamboozled a bit by it,” Wey told NPR. “But the majority of white folks, nearly 80 percent, decided to pay.”

Wey’s experiment was conducted with in partnership with public health students from Tulane University, who asked those who’d bought food to complete a short survey and quizzed them on the ways the unequal distribution of wealth had affected their lives. One woman reported having to forgo an opportunity to intern at the White House during her university years, whilst the more affluent – and white – customers realised they’d had access to resources others didn’t, such as financial support from parents. 

Unsurprisingly, the investigation has prompted accusations of ‘racism’ from some corners of the internet. But even without delving into lengthy explanations of how racism works structurally, Wey has stressed the experiment is not about discriminating between different groups. 

“The point is not to charge people more for lunch based on their race,” said Wey to local newspaper, The Times-Picayune

“The point is to make people experience […] how income disparities affect daily decisions like what to pay for lunch, as well as life-altering opportunities and even personal health.” 

“When we think of the racial wealth disparity, we think of a systemic problem,” the chef continued. “A system is the result of all of the different actions we take, so there are ways in our lives that we can make different choices that have a cumulative effect.”

Like choosing to spend where to spend our lunch money. 

Images: Nick Hillier