Members of the West 7th Restaurant & Bar Association defended their dress code policy on Monday to the Fort Worth Race and Culture Task Force during a discussion about equal access to public accommodations.
Tino DeFranco, the president of the association and owner of the bar Whiskey Garden; Brian Paul, co-owner of Bar 2909; and Marcelle LeBlanc, the owner of the lingerie shop Velvet Box, all vehemently denied any type of discrimination at their establishments.
“We don’t racially profile or discriminate at all,” DeFranco said. “We deny people for reasons of safety, appropriateness and dress code, and the dress code is not discriminatory in any manner. I’m glad we’re having this discussion, because sometimes things are assumed that aren’t correct.”
However, Paul added that the dress code enforcement is “too much to get it perfect every single time,” especially on busy weekend nights.
LeBlanc said when she first read about allegations of discrimination at the popular West 7th area bar Varsity Tavern, she “never bothered to ask” one of the bar’s co-owners, James Hoffman, whether they were true. Instead, she said, she thought of the situation like a business owner would.
“How could the Fort Worth Weekly, who he gives advertising dollars to, ambush him in such a one-sided way?” she said in reference to an article in that publication about Varsity Tavern. In the article, customers accused the popular West 7th area bar of using its dress code to racially discriminate by denying them entry.
Co-chairs Bob Ray Sanders, Lillie Biggins and other task force members asked whether the bar owners had a quota for how many minorities could be in their establishments at a given time, whether the bar owners had any data about how many people are turned away in a week, how many of those people are people of color and whether they had a breakdown of how many people of color are on staff.
The answers to all of those questions were no.
DeFranco and Paul spoke about the dress code policies at the West 7th area bars, saying they use the same dress code that the U.S. Department of Justice agreed to for the Dallas bar Kung Fu Saloon, which settled a racism dispute in 2015. Kung Fu has since opened a location in Fort Worth.
However, task force member Katie Sherrod pointed out several differences between the West 7th bars’ dress code and the one approved by the Justice Department, which were mainly certain types of tattoos, jewelry, biker vests and shoes like Jordan sneakers or Timberland boots.
Paul said those additions, which all supposedly have gang meanings or affiliations, were made after consulting the Fort Worth Police Department “gang unit.” However, Lt. Charles R. Harn of the Fort Worth Police Department Tactical Investigations Division-Gang Section said in April that he was “not aware of any business owner consulting the Gang Unit about their dress codes.”
He also said that after consulting with other officers in the unit, it does not appear to be a service they have ever offered.
The three business owners said throughout their presentation that the West 7th area and their customers are some of the most diverse in Fort Worth. Although they did not have data to show that, the 2016 American Community Survey shows that the 76107 ZIP code, which encompasses West 7th, is 73.6 percent white.
Task force member Yolanda Harper also disputed the assertion about diversity.
“From the African-American perspective, in the black community, a lot of blacks do not want to come to the West 7th area because of the way they’ve been treated at some point or another,” Harper said. “You’re saying that the West 7th area is the most diverse, I’m going to respectfully disagree with that statement.”
On April 16, the Star-Telegram published a story about Varsity Tavern in which black Tarrant County residents said they were denied entry based on the way they were dressed. They noted that white patrons dressed similarly or exactly the same were granted entry. Such denial is a violation of the City of Fort Worth Human Relations Ordinance.
The City of Fort Worth Human Relations Unit has received three formal complaints against Varsity Tavern alleging discrimination. Human Relations Coordinator Veronica Villegas said the department is waiting for Varsity’s response to the notices that complaints have been filed.
Varsity Tavern is required to respond to the notice within two weeks.
The owners of Varsity Tavern were invited to the task force meeting as well, but they “respectfully declined” because of the Human Relations Unit investigation, assistant city manager Fernando Costa said.
The HRU is a division of the city manager’s office that has the authority to enforce anti-discrimination laws in the areas of housing, employment and public accommodation. It operates much like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and has a contract with the EEOC to investigate and resolve employment discrimination claims.
However, the HRU can investigate an alleged violation only if a formal complaint has been filed.
The race and culture task force was appointed after the arrest of Jacqueline Craig in December 2016. Craig’s case resulted in a public outcry and brought to the surface racial and cultural inequalities in the city. On May 1, it presented its interim report to the city council, highlighting several disparities that communities of color in Fort Worth face. The city council approved the task force’s request to extend its deadline for the final report with recommendations to December.