If you’re a responsible business accused of racially discriminating against customers, how should you respond?
The right thing to do, for the company and customers, is what Starbucks did last week when it closed 8,000 stores with 175,000 employees for half a day, and provided mandatory racial bias training.
Executives didn’t argue with the customers who felt wronged. They apologized, accepted responsibility, then worked to make things right.
The wrong thing to do? We saw that in the response from Fort Worth’s Varsity Tavern and the West 7th Restaurant & Bar Association. The Tavern simply dismissed allegations that race might have played a role in African-American customers being denied entrance to the club.
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Then, three club owners who are members of the association, doubled down on the denial by going on the defensive when questioned by the city’s Race & Culture Task Force. They dug in, said the area attracted a diverse crowd, and none of the clubs deny admission because of race. They said, “we don’t discriminate.”
What happened may not be an orchestrated strategy to exclude a certain group of people. But not accepting the possibility that there’s a problem with admission policies or employees, and not expressing a desire to get to the bottom of allegations and educate workers, indicates there is a problem.
The Varsity Tavern incident
A lot of the debate over what happened at the Varsity Tavern seems to be about a subjective dress code clubs use to determine whether a patron is allowed to come in.
In April, an African-American man visiting from the Bronx was told he couldn’t enter the club because he was wearing Jordan tennis shoes, which are sometimes associated with gang violence.
He traded shoes with a white friend, who was then admitted to the Tavern wearing the same Jordans.
Star-Telegram reporter Hanaa’ Tameez reported on the incident, and the Varsity Tavern responded with a statement saying it was “saddened” that people felt discriminated against. Managers would continue to work with staff to maintain consistency in administering the dress code.
That’s pretty lame. Where was the recognition that something wrong happened? At the very least Varsity owners should have just said, “Hey, we are so sorry you had this experience. It shouldn’t have taken place. We’ll get to the bottom of it.”
And, if they had any public relations skills, Tavern owners would have invited the customer to stop in for a couple of free drinks and some food.
The problem with a subjective dress code
It’s pretty clear that deciding who comes into the clubs and who doesn’t is subjective, and that leaves plenty of room for misunderstandings and decisions based on false stereotypes.
At the task force meeting club owners said employees guarding the entrances watch for certain tattoos, excessive jewelry, and specific clothing that might indicate people seeking admission are gang members.
Tino DeFranco, the president of the association and owner of the Whiskey Garden bar, acknowledged the employees make “judgment calls.” One person might be denied entry because of clothing when another wearing the same thing will be admitted.
Task force co-chair Bob Ray Sanders said dress codes have long been used to arbitrarily discriminate against people of color at North Texas clubs.
In 2015, the U.S. Justice Department settled a discrimination suit against the Kung Fu Saloon in Dallas after claims that African-Americans were denied entry for how they were dressed when white people wearing the same thing were admitted.
The Kung Fu Saloon had to adopt and publicly post a dress policy approved by justice officials and provide anti-discrimination training for employees. Sanders said something similar needs to happen here.
He believes the Seventh Street area bars need to adopt a dress policy that can’t be arbitrarily interpreted. DeFranco says the group is working on something like that.
Sanders believes the bars should commit to hiring diverse staff. DeFranco has said 39 percent of his staff are people of color. Other bar owners haven’t provided the task force that information.
The value in the Starbucks' response to bias is the message it sends to businesses. A half-day of training won't change a culture. But instead of being pilloried for sweeping a problem under the rug, it's being congratulated for taking an important step to train employees to recognize and reject discrimination.
Starbucks is making its racial bias training video available online. We recommend the owners of the Seventh Street area bars gather their employees, watch it, discuss it and consider changes that would ensure all of their customers are treated equally.
Of course, the bar owners will have to first admit they may have a problem. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like they’re ready to do that.