Chinese Menu Discrimination

A Hispanic man from Wisconsin has filed a complaint with the NYC Human Rights Commission about the fact that restaurants in Chinatown charge an average of $1 less to customers who can read and order in Chinese.

Matt Yglesias thought this discriminatory pricing was common knowledge and is “not really sure what’s wrong with this kind of business practice; it’s no different from offering student fares on airlines or senior citizens’ discounts at movie theaters.” While I was unaware of this practice, I would agree with Matt’s conclusion but not his analysis.

Disagreement first: Given that this practice amounts to ethnic discrimination, it is probably illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its various amendments and interpretations. While I think senior citizen discounts silly, because they’re based on the false premise that the elderly have less disposable income, they’re not discriminating against a protected class. And, indeed, most people will eventually get old and be part of the benefited class.

Should it, however, be illegal for business owners to decide that they can get away with charging one group of people more than another and adjust their prices accordingly? Absolutely not. Car dealerships, for example, do it all the time. Indeed, aside from the “no haggle” establishments, virtually every customer gets charged a slightly different price.

Further, if I’m willing to pay $5 for my congee with minced beef, what concern is it of mine if some Chinese-speaking person at the next table (or indeed, virtually all the other tables) is paying $4?

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Law and the Courts, Race and Politics, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. A lawsuit over a buck difference in pricing? I see people price discriminate themselves at Starbucks all the time by throwing different amounts into the tip jar. Some throw nothing (me most of the time) to even a few bucks.

  2. Anderson says:

    Given that this practice amounts to ethnic discrimination, it is probably illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its various amendments and interpretations. While I think senior citizen discounts silly, because they’re based on the false premise that the elderly have less disposable income, they’re not discriminating against a protected class.

    Lack of sleep today, so I don’t follow. Are English speakers, or non-speakers-of-Chinese, a “protected class”? (Leaving aside whether they should be, here & there.)

    What ticks me off about the described practice is that not only are the immigrants not bothering to learn rudimentary English, they’re actually charging English-speakers extra for their own lack of acculturization.

    Still, if the General Tso chicken is spicy and all-white meat …

  3. DC Loser says:

    Nowhere does it say they’re discriminating based on race. If a roundeye walks in and can order in Chinese, then I’d preseume they’d get the discount too. BTW, chicken white meat is the inferior meat compared to dark meat in Chinese cooking. If you’re paying more for that, then you’re really getting ripped off 🙂

  4. James Joyner says:

    not only are the immigrants not bothering to learn rudimentary English, they’re actually charging English-speakers extra for their own lack of acculturization.

    I’m sure almost all of them are learning rudimentary English; they just happen to also speak Chinese.

    If a roundeye walks in and can order in Chinese, then I’d preseume they’d get the discount too.

    My guess is that the roundeyes aren’t given that menu.

  5. DC Loser says:

    Go to http://www.chowhound.com and look at some of the discussions about Chinese restaurants in the DC area. Plenty of roundeyes ask for and get the “Chinese” menu and order off them.

  6. jpe says:

    When language tracks national origin, one can infer race.

  7. floyd says:

    James; It’s not ethnic discrimination since the discount is offered to anyone who orders in chinese, regardless of their ethnicity. You don’t even have to speak the language beyond reading the menu and and saying please and thank you! just learn the menu and save the money.

  8. floyd says:

    JPE; One can always infer what one chooses, even when nothing is implied.

  9. Christopher says:

    James,

    Can I come live on the planet you live on where senior citizens are NOT a protected class? Maybe on your planet we wouldn’t have to worry about the growing number of protected classes. Soon we will probably see gays there as well. No wonder there are huge growing numbers of lawyers EVERYday.

    Get with the program man!

  10. James Joyner says:

    Can I come live on the planet you live on where senior citizens are NOT a protected class?

    It’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of age against those over 40. Here, the protected class is the beneficiary.

  11. Jaysun Lee Ammerman says:

    Anyone can see that this is discrimination. I know not only Chinese people speak Chinese but I also know that the number of non-Chinese/Chinese speaking people who eat at these restaurants is very few. This is just a very smart way to discriminate those who do not fit “the culture.” Though no one probably will not do anything about this they should. I feel like I have to learn Chinese now. And, the whole car dealer ship is a bad example. This is something totally different. And also, Charging senior citizens less is just out of respect and plus it gives us all something to look forward to. I wonder if they give senior discounts in china town?

  12. Nick says:

    Whether or not it goes on all the time, does not mean that it’s right. But, I have to also look at the situation in this case.

    It’s a Freakin Dollar! Don’t Fret! Come over my house and I’ll give you a whole dollar, not the paper ones, but the new coin ones too…

  13. DC Loser says:

    I can’t believe what a hot topic this is on Yglesia’s site. There’s almost 200 comments on this one!

  14. DL says:

    Discrimination – how about ladies days at the ballpark?

    My sporting goods catalogs discriminate by sending their catalogs to sportsman and woman.

    There are certain sections of a nearby city that I tend to discriminate against -especially at night.

    But Chinese food is not acceptable to me – I care not the least if they charge someone else a buck less.

    Isn’t there a biblical admonition about complaining about the wages given to those laborers who came late to the field?

  15. superdestroyer says:

    I love how many of the commenters at Yglesia’s site are falling all over themselves to justify racism and discrimination as long as it is aimed at whites.

    I doubt that any of the mentioned Chinese restaurants wait until they have confirmed the individuals ability to speak Chinese before handing them the menu. What is really going on is cheaper prices for ethnic Chinese who are recent immigrants.

    Of course I suspect that all of these restaurants also cheat on their taxes and fragrantly violate health and building codes.

  16. Anderson says:

    I’m sure almost all of them are learning rudimentary English; they just happen to also speak Chinese.

    Permit me to doubt.

  17. DC Loser says:

    Anderson, I’ll just cite my case. I speak perfectly acceptable English, but I do get the Chinese menu when I go to a Chinese restaurant based on my appearance, AND from my ability to converse in the language.

  18. I once went to a very nice restaurant that had two separate sets of menus. One was handed to one group of customers based on their appearance and the other was handed to the other customers based on their appearance.

    One had no prices on the menu and was handed to women. The other had the prices on the menu and were handed to me. And by the way, the female diners were not free.

    Lets think about this differently. Imagine if it was a Tex-Mex restaurant that offered $1 discount on their spanish version of the menu. He says the difference is to support the learning of spanish by giving a discount for those who are able to handle enough spanish to order off the spanish menu. Now whether you said there was no problem or there was a problem hold that thought.

    Imagine next that the Tex-Mex restaurant changes their policy and offers a $1 discount if you order in english. The owner makes the change to support the learning of english by giving a discount for those who are able to handle enough english to order off the english menu. Do you have a problem with that?

    Is your answer dependant on which language is getting the discount. If the owner is an immigrant who is grateful for what this country has allowed him to accomplish and thinks that learning english is one of the keys for immigrant success, does that change your view? If the owner believes that the state the restaurant is in was stolen from Mexico and should be returned, does that change your view?

    At the end of the day, this should be a straight forward economic exchange. Money for food. If you don’t like the deal, go somewhere else. If the owner wants to promote the use of one language vs another, support the restaurant or not. But lawyers don’t need to be involved (unless they are buying me lunch).