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Barring The Doors To Minorities

Regis Murayi, 21, spent weeks organizing his college’s senior class trip to Chicago. As class treasurer, he talked to representatives of the Original Mother’s bar to negotiate a $25 per person all-you-can-drink package for the group.

But, when the big night came, Murayi was not allowed into the bar. Of the approximately 200 students from Washington University in St. Louis who went on the trip, six were refused entry to the bar. All six were African-American.

A club manager told Murayi and his classmates that their pants were too baggy, and he pointed to the dress code posted near the entrance.

But the real dress code seemed to be less about pants and more about skin color.

Senior class president Fernando Cutz, who is not African-American, was already inside the bar when he heard about his classmates’ difficulty.  Cutz later told CNN, “These six [students] were better dressed than I was.” But he didn’t want to cause a scene, so he told his classmates they should go back to the hotel to change. The bar manager interrupted, saying that even if they returned later in different clothes, the six students would not be admitted.

The students decided to put the dress code claim to the test. Another student who had not yet entered the bar switched pants with Murayi. That student, Jordan Roberts, is three inches shorter than Murayi, so, if the pants were baggy to start with, they were much baggier when Roberts put them on. But Roberts approached the same manager who had turned the other men away, paid the cover charge and was admitted to the bar. Roberts, like Cutz and every other student who was allowed into the Original Mother’s bar that night, is not African-American. A CNN article shows the two men wearing the pants, Roberts inside the bar and Murayi outside of it.

Dan Benson, the bar’s human resource manager, told the Chicago Tribune that the dress code was in place because of security concerns, not to discriminate against patrons of any particular race. He said that it was an “unfortunate situation,” but that the prevalence of gang violence in the area made the policy necessary.

The phenomenon is not limited to the Original Mother’s bar or to Chicago. Hector Perez of Erie, Pa., who is Hispanic, said he bought clothes specifically to conform to the local clubs’ dress codes and still was denied entry. He told the Erie Times News in 2007, “They turned me down wearing khaki shorts and a dress shirt.” Perez said he had been turned away at the door—allegedly because of his clothes—seven times in a two-month period.

The experience of Murayi and his classmates at Original Mother’s bar is neither surprising nor unfamiliar to me. Last year, a friend and I were denied access to America’s Backyard, a bar and restaurant located in downtown Fort Lauderdale. My friend, Hector Hollis, is also African-American. The bouncer informed us that our jeans were too baggy. He pointed to the sign for the dress code posted near the front door, which stated “Pants: We allow tasteful, stylish, well-fitting pants of all styles, including jeans... NO-NO’s: Workout wear or any clothing that is excessively baggy, torn or distasteful.” However, this same bouncer allowed a Caucasian patron wearing jeans that were much baggier than ours to pay his cover charge and enter the establishment. It was clear that it was our race and not our clothes the bouncer at America’s Backyard had issue with.

Both my experience and the Washington University students’ experience serve as reminders that, though racism is generally less overt now than it once was, it has far from disappeared.

Rules and statutes that are written too broadly give bouncers and officials the prerogative to enforce the standards only against people and groups of people whom they dislike. In New York City, police used their power to “stop-and-frisk” 311,646 times between January and June of this year. 52.3 percent of the people stopped were African-American, though African-Americans make up only about 25 percent of the city’s population. Whites make up the largest racial group in New York City, accounting for around 35 percent of the population, but only 9 percent of those subjected to stop-and-frisk searches were white.

This reminds me of my teenage years growing up in the South Bronx, where it was not uncommon for my friends and me to be stopped and searched by police officers for no apparent reason. When asked why we were being searched, the reply we often heard began with the phrase, “You fit the description....” It is apparent that this form of discrimination has not changed much in 20 years.

Some police officers even invent laws in order to justify mistreatment of particular ethnic groups. Over the past three years, Dallas police have given out tickets to 39 drivers for not speaking English, in spite of the fact that proficiency in English is not a requirement for driving in Texas.

Referring to one woman who was cited for being a “non-English-speaking driver,” Hector Flores, former president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said, “She was cited for driving while Hispanic. For driving while immigrant.”

After the Washington University students returned to campus, they held a town hall meeting to discuss ways to respond to the incident and to problems of racism in society at large. The students have already filed complaints with the Illinois attorney general's office, the Chicago Commission on Human Relations and the U.S. Justice Department.

I am glad to see that Murayi and his classmates’ unfortunate experience is garnering national attention. The only way to combat racism is to raise awareness about the injustices that minorities continue to experience every day. Although we have an African-American president in office, it is obvious that discrimination is alive and well in our own backyard.

Managing Vice President Shomari D. Hearn, based in our Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters, contributed several chapters to our firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55, including Chapter 2, “Relationships with Adult Children;” Chapter 9, “Life Insurance;” and Chapter 17, “Retiring Abroad.”

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