Now, a moment of sobering news: even restaurants get judged through the lens of skin color. That’s what a new study from CUNY found when they looked at Yelp reviews for restaurants in two different Brooklyn neighborhoods—one primarily white-gentrifying, and the other primarily black-gentrifying. According to the abstract, “social media users who post restaurant reviews on the website Yelp.com act as both prosumers or produsers and ‘discursive investors’ in gentrification.”
Come again? Broken down into non academic-study-ese (yeah, that’s the official term for it), Yelp reviewers have a lot of influence over a restaurant’s future (and therefore a neighborhood’s future)—both negative and positive. Part of the negative influence seems to be race driven.
One of the neighborhoods in the study, Greenpoint, was ethnically Polish (read: white), while the other, Bedford-Stuyvesant, was traditionally black. Of the more than 7,000 Yelp reviews the study’s authors combed through, just over a thousand explicitly mentioned the neighborhood the restaurant was located in. Of those, 720 mentioned Bedford-Stuyvesant, while 336 mentioned Greenpoint.
You can pretty much draw the conclusion yourself: reviewers drew attention to the neighborhood in which the majority of the residents were black.
The language the reviewers used for each neighborhood was also different. The restaurants located in Greenpoint were primarily described as “authentic” and “cozy,” while the Bedford-Stuyvesant restaurants were described a lot more negatively, with adjectives such as “dangerous,” “hood” and “ghetto.”
The takeaway from the study, then, is that the language used in the reviews contributes — purposefully or not — to this “discursive redlining” in primarily black neighborhoods. Because if a restaurant is described as being in an incredibly sketchy location, will you really want to take your family there? Doubtful. It becomes a feedback loop and causes restaurants to struggle, because the neighborhood is stigmatized, which leads to less successful restaurants and a less vibrant neighborhood and on and on.
Does that mean that Yelp is a racist system?
It’s a hard question to answer — the race of the Yelpers is not accounted for in the study and there’s no way to assess an absolute-value to each restaurant, thereby creating a control group — but this isn’t the first time these questions have been broached. Yelpers also seem to be overeager to call out ethnic restaurants over claims of food poisoning.
If there’s one thing we can take away from the study, it’s that a restaurant should be judged on the content of its food, and not on the prevalent skin color of the residents of the neighborhood it’s located in. As the study says, “Intentionally or not, Yelp restaurant reviewers may encourage, confirm, or even accelerate processes of gentrification by signaling that a locality is good for people who share their tastes.”
Which may become yet another reason why many people are #TeamSouthpark when it comes to Yelp: