#LaughingWhileBlack: 'Sistahs' file $11 million race discrimination lawsuit

The 'Sistahs on the Reading Edge' book club filed a lawsuit Thursday claiming the company's decision to kick them off the Napa Valley train was racially motivated. Train employees said the book club was too noisy. 

Jose Carlos Fajardo/ AP
Members of the Sistahs on the Reading Edge book club from Antioch, Calif. The women's 11-member club filed an $11 million lawsuit in San Francisco on Thursday against the Napa Valley Wine Train, which they accuse of kicking them off a tour for racially motivated reasons. Lisa Johnson (center) holds a photograph taken during their trip.

An Antioch, Calif., women’s book club filed an $11 million racial discrimination lawsuit Thursday against the Napa Valley Wine Train in San Francisco, continuing the saga Twitter followers dubbed #laughingwhileblack.

The "Sistahs on the Reading Edge" book club and Wine Train officials agree on one thing: 11 book club members, all but one of whom are black, were celebrating a birthday aboard the vintage train tour on Aug. 22. After at least one patron complained about the group’s volume, they were removed from the train and left with police officers, who brought them back to the station and refunded their tickets. 

“The lawsuit highlights that blacks are still being treated differently in America,” said their attorney Waukeen McCoy, reported The Los Angeles Times.

Club member Lisa Renee Johnson documented their afternoon on Facebook as the incident escalated after staff gave them a noise warning, then informed them they would have to get off the train.

A fellow passenger on Aug. 22 told WPTV that she 

watched in disbelief as staff harassed a group of people who were merely drinking wine and laughing ... given the fact that the other, non-black guests were behaving in the same way and not removed, I can only conclude that it was discrimination.

The women felt “humiliated” and confused as they were escorted through several cars of passengers and deposited at the side of the train, where the railroad company had asked local police to wait for “11 disruptive females,” according to a police spokeswoman quoted by The Associated Press

However, seeing that “nobody was intoxicated, there were no issues,” the police left after making sure that the women, dressed in matching T-shirts, would be brought back to the train station.

According to Ms. Johnson, the incident might have ended then and there, although the book club maintains that their crime was simply “laughing while black.” However, as Twitter spread the story and the tour company started to feel backlash, it issued a statement on Facebook that the women found even more upsetting, claiming they had been verbally and physically abusive.

In the ensuing controversy, Napa Valley Wine Tours, whose ownership has changed hands since the initial incident, has made several overtures, making a public apology, deleting the Facebook statement, and promising to improve employees’ sensitivity training. 

“The Napa Valley Wine Train was 100 percent wrong in its handling of the issue,” chief executive Anthony Giaccio apologized. 

On Thursday, a Wine Train spokesman said the company "takes the allegations of discrimination very seriously, and is conducting its own investigation ... After the investigation has been conducted we will have the appropriate response to the complaint that is being filed seeking $11 million in damages."

But Johnson has said the group will hold firm in its lawsuit until race is acknowledged as a factor.

A likely key to the group’s case is whether other parties have been treated similarly. The company says that tour groups need to be removed about once per month.

But other former customers have uploaded to Facebook and Yelp evidence of previous, non-black groups heartily enjoying themselves on the train (without expulsion). One Latina grad student came forward to say she felt her group had received similar treatment, although they were allowed to complete their tour.

University of California, Berkeley Prof. Nikki Jones told Slate that the case may demonstrate the “hyper-visibility” women of color experience on a daily basis. With the book club’s lawsuit, filed by San Francisco attorney Waukeen McCoy, the Sistahs apparently aim to keep the tour company in the spotlight.

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