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This Essay was written at the invitation of the Journal of Law and Commerce to contribute a piece on racism and commerce—an invitation that was welcome and well timed. It arrived as renewed attention was focused on racialized policing following the killing of George Floyd and in the midst of the worsening pandemic that highlighted unrelenting racial, social, and economic inequities in our society.

The connections between racism and commerce are potentially numerous, but the relationship between discriminatory policing and commerce might not be apparent. This Essay links them through the concept of dignity. Legal scholar John Felipe Acevedo has argued that the murder of George Floyd and racially discriminatory policing more broadly constitute a “dignitary taking” against the targeted community, by which the police elevate their own status at the expense of that community. Sociologist Zachary Brewster and I have made a similar argument with respect to racial discrimination in one of the most mundane of commercial transactions: interactive service encounters, as exemplified by restaurant service. Specifically, we have argued that racial discrimination in restaurant service trades on the dignity of both customers and servers, because the racialized environments common in many restaurants promote a dynamic whereby servers shift the indignities they bear as a condition of their work onto their Black customers, by delivering inferior, inhospitable, and sometimes degrading service. In other words, servers reclaim their own dignity by taking dignity from Black customers.

This Essay explores the parallels and connections between racially discriminatory policing and racially discriminatory restaurant service to illuminate one way in which racism influences commerce. It then goes on to ask: How does the taking and claiming of dignity affect Black servers, who must earn their livelihoods in a system where their dignity is at stake when they engage on both sides of the transaction? It suggests that Black servers are likely to bear both greater and different burdens than their non-Black coworkers—that is, that Black servers both face disadvantages in performing work that is required of all servers and are required to do work that is not expected of White servers. The Essay ends with a call for research into the work experiences of Black servers, who labor at the intersection of race, dignity, and commerce.