Ex-Papa John's CEO Backs Fired St. Louis Worker in Discrimination Suit

click to enlarge A St. Ann's Papa John's is at the center of a lawsuit alleging racism. - GOOGLE MAPS
A St. Ann's Papa John's is at the center of a lawsuit alleging racism.

An already bizarre story about how a Black employee of a St. Ann's Papa John's was fired after recording his boss's racist rants has become decidedly weirder now that the pizza chain's disgraced former CEO John Schnatter has thrown himself into the mix.

The billionaire appeared during a Wednesday KMOV segment ostensibly focused on George Mitchell, a 35-year-old Papa John's employee who had been fired last year after he complained about his shift manager's unsettling comments about race and women.

As a delivery driver and cook, Mitchell had started making recordings of his manager, Joshua Bruce, who is white. Some of those clips aired in a February 6 story from KMOV, including a recording that had apparently captured Bruce in mid-tirade about his disgust for interracial relationships, specifically for white women who have children with Black men.

Mitchell ultimately lost his job after he complained to the store's corporate owners about his boss, and soon after filed a discrimination lawsuit naming Bruce and Papa John's. This week, though, the suit gained him an unlikely ally in Schnatter, who had resigned from Papa John's in 2018 after it was revealed he had used the n-word during a "diversity training" call.

Now in the midst of an attempted comeback, Schnatter was alerted to Mitchell's plight in stories from KMOV and the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

"The tape is dreadful, it’s horrific, and for anybody to have to go through that, it’s just bad," Schnatter told KMOV this week.

Indeed, the recordings Mitchell captured before his firing appear to show Bruce spiraling through unambiguous white supremacist talking points.

"So you're not only f—-ing our daughters, you're beating their asses and you're leaving them with a kid, seven out of ten times," Bruce says in one recording. In another, he rants, "There's not a white guy in the world that comes along, meets a white girl, as soon as he sees that mixed kid, he's f—ing out." The recordings also included Bruce allegedly saying, "White people created Western Civilization," a statement closely resembling the arguments made of the Proud Boys and white nationalists.

However, during the KMOV follow-up that aired Wednesday and which featured Schnatter, the story took a strange turn as it attempted to contextualize the ex-CEO's personal history with racial controversy and the circumstances of the 2018 call in which he said the n-word.

KMOV reporter Ashli Lincoln asked Schnatter, "Did you use the n-word any time in that audio?"

"No," Schnatter answered. "I said Colonel Sanders calls Black people that. I would never use that word."

But there are some notable problems with Schnatter's answer. First, it contradicts his own apology in 2018, when he acknowledged the incident to the Washington Post, saying: "News reports attributing the use of inappropriate and hurtful language to me during a media training session regarding race are true."

KMOV didn't push back on Schnatter's answer, and, in an even more significant blunder, Lincoln's voiceover continued: "This past December, the FBI exonerated Schnatter, saying his comments were not intended as a racial slur towards anyone" — something which did not happen.

Instead, the purported "exoneration" report was produced by former FBI director Louis Freeh, who had been hired by Schnatter's attorneys to "assess" the 2018 phone call and determined whether Schnatter's statements had been misinterpreted in the press.

KMOV's story appeared to misunderstand the provenance of the report even when Schnatter addressed it directly: The online version of the story quotes Schnatter defending his conduct in 2018, saying "The free report clears me" — but Schnatter wasn't saying "free," but "Freeh," that is, the author of the report his attorneys had paid for.

While Freeh's report contended that media coverage had unfairly projected racist intention on Schnatter's 2018 call, it also reaffirmed that, yes, Schnatter had used the racial epithet during diversity training while comparing his use of the n-word to that of Colonel Sanders.

Still, KMOV's Lincoln did press Schnatter on his decision to involve himself in Mitchell's case.

"Critics might say, 'Hey, this is a publicity stunt to clear your name,'" she noted. "What's your response to that?"

"There's plenty of publicly already," Schnatter replied, and, turning to Mitchell, added, "and if it helps him get this resolved, we'll get some publicity."

For Mitchell, though, the coming legal fight against Papa John's could be a difficult one. A 2017 Missouri law drastically restricted the standards for proving discrimination in court, meaning plaintiffs can't simply argue that race was "a contributing factor" to discrimination, but "the motivating factor."

While the legal issue proceeds in court, the recordings Mitchell made, backed up by the lawsuit, describe a workplace of mounting toxicity and terror. The lawsuit alleges that Bruce had previously attempted to "claim" a recently hired female Black employee and then demanded Mitchell act as a "wingman" in his attempts to have sex with her.

When those efforts failed, Bruce's behavior "became more erratic and strange," the lawsuit said. That's when Mitchell started recording his boss — but when he took his evidence and complaints to the store's corporate ownership in July 2020, they reacted by firing the employee, not the racist boss.

In the interview aired in the KMOV segment Wednesday, Mitchell said it was the failure of Papa John's corporate ownership to take racism seriously that motivated him to reach out to Schnatter, despite the ex-CEO's history.

Addressing the question from KMOV's Lincoln about whether critics would say Schnatter's involvement is simply part of a PR stunt, Mitchell said, "they can say what they want."

"But truthfully," Mitchell added, "he's the only one that came when I called."

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at
@D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]
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