Could a single lunch change your views on race and wealth?
By ANN MALONEY
Mar. 03, 2018
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Would you hesitate to spend $12 for a work-day lunch? How about $30? One big factor affecting your answer to that question is how financially secure you are.
In Central City, a social experiment is underway through March 4.
Walk up to a window manned by chef Tunde Wey at Roux Carré, 2000 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., order his Nigerian food and the experiment begins. If you are white, you will be asked to pay $30. If you are black, Latino or Asian, the bill will be $12.
Any diner can elect to pay $12 and be served. The point is not to charge people more for lunch based on their race, Wey said. The point, he said, is to make people experience, in a concrete situation, how income disparities — which, in New Orleans, starkly run along racial lines — affect daily decisions like what to pay for lunch, as well as life-altering opportunities and even personal health.
"It seems like a simple premise and also a little provocative," said Anjali Prasertong, a graduate student at Tulane's School of Public Health, who, along with volunteers from Tulane and the new Loyola Food Studies program, surveyed participating diners and collected data on their behavior.
The dining experiment was not publicized so that it could capture the reactions of everyday diners. The lunch continues through Sunday, but the surveys and data collection ended on Wednesday.
Data was collected regarding how many people ordered food and paid the additional fee. Participating diners also were asked open-ended questions about how their family's wealth or lack thereof affected their life's path.
Wealth means more than just individual income, she said. The wealth of the family and community that one belongs to can have a huge impact on opportunities from jobs to health care, she said.
The survey explores the "hidden ways that their race and the resulting wealth that their family had was able to give them a leg up in life," Pasertong said. "That could be your parents could give you a car so you could drive to a good job across town. Maybe it was to allow you take an internship that is not paid, so you were able to meet the people who led you to a job."
A lack of individual and community financial security leads to fewer opportunities, which leads to the continuation of systematic racism, she said.
"Generally, folks of color have less wealth," Wey said.
Numerous studies back up that assertion. For example, from 2000 to 2016 the median income for black households dropped from $31,548, in inflation-adjusted dollars, to $25,324, according to the New Orleans Data Center's Tricentennial Prosperity Index study, which will be released in April.
In comparison, the median real income for white households increased from $63,875 to $67,884 over that same period.
In New Orleans, the average Asian-owned and black-owned home is worth half the average white-owned home, according to a 2016 report by Prosperity Now.
At 300, New Orleans must address inequality ' Opinion
More than 70 percent of black households do not have enough financial security to live for even a few months if the breadwinner should lose a job, or the household face a medical crisis or have some other disruptive major event. About 29 percent of white New Orleanians are in the same boat, according to Prosperity Now.
Wey will discuss his experiences and Prasertong will present her data from the experiment later this month at a public town hall meeting. Wey has long worked to create conversations about race and its role in our social structure. In March 2016, he hosted family-style dinners in New Orleans and around the country where diners would discuss "blackness in America."
And, in May, Wey was part of "Invisible Chefs: Where Are New Orleans Black Chefs?" at New Orleans Jazz Market. The Times-Picayune partnered with Wey and Zella Palmer of Dillard University's Ray Charles Program in African-American Material Culture to organize the panel discussion.
Why are there so few prominent black chefs in New Orleans?
Wey believes the experiment at Roux Carré can be a tool in breaking down this racial divide.
"When we think of the racial wealth disparity, we think of a systemic problem," he said. "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," he said, citing such things as where one sends their child to school, buys a house, or spends their money.
Positive social pressure can be a tool to inspire people to do something that — in that moment — does not seem to be in their interest, he said.
A second part of the experiment is about what "redistribution of wealth can look like in practice," Wey said, noting that extra money collected — the $18 difference — from those who do pay $30, has been pooled. During the survey, black, Asian, Latino or other minorities are asked if they want to leave their emails, so that they could share in a portion of that money.
This part of the experiment demonstrates how people feel about receiving assistance, Pasertong said: "Maybe some think they don't need it. Maybe it is embarrassing or humiliating. Or, maybe, they're like, sure."
This experiment demonstrates spending and life choices in a microcosm, Wey said. He recognizes the limitations of this experiment, its short duration as well as its location at a site that is itself a demonstration of an effort to close the wealth gap: Roux Carre is a food court created by the nonprofit Good Work Network, to serve as an incubator for small businesses owned by women and minorities.
Roux Carre, a Central City food court, now open
Still, he said, the one-on-one interaction with people provides not only an opportunity to collect data and record interactions, but it is a chance for literal dialogue about how our decisions affect the world around us.
"You can make a choice, a small circumscribed choice, but you're actively investing in a different paradigm," he said of the seemingly mundane decision about where you eat lunch one afternoon in New Orleans.