I debated touching on this topic on my blog, but what the hey, it is the convergence of my two worlds.  Of course I am a foodie/food blogger, but in my real life I am an attorney.   I have been drawn to the legal aspects of the ongoing drama with the local bar Gaslamp. For those out of the loop, three African American male attorneys attempted to enter the bar Gaslamp in Houston’s Midtown area.  The bouncers told them it would cost $20. A note here, bars in Houston do not typically charge cover.  The three men declined and went across the street. From that vantage point they watched as several groups were treated differently.  White males were allowed to enter with no cover charge and minorities (African American, Asian and Hispanic) were asked to pay $20.  The three men shared their story via social media and it has now gone viral with substantial coverage by local media. Houston Mayor Annise Parker and rapper BunB have even tweeted their support.

I noted they were attorneys for several reasons.  One there is this idea that if you dress a certain way or obtain an education that you can escape discrimination.  These men wore nice jeans, dress shoes, dress shirts and blazers.  This is called respectability politics.   This idea allows an unmarried pregnant teen and a convicted felon’s stories about refusing to give up their seat on a segregated Alabama bus to go unheard in history books.  But everyone knows, of pretty polite NAACP secretary, Rosa Parks who did the same thing AFTER them.  Ms Parks’ story became national news and sparked a boycott, partly because she was “respectable.”   These three men were the definition of “respectability” but were still asked to pay a cover to enter the establishment while other men entered for free.

I also noted their background because these experiences are not just limited to these three men.  Several of my African American male friends have had similar experiences with midtown bars.  Again, for those who believe in respectability politics, these men are VERY educated.  A friend of mine who is literally an MD, was denied entry into a midtown bar for having pants that were too baggy as a he watched similarly dressed white males enter the establishment.  The group of men, dress as an young professional man would dress.  No baggy clothes, dress shirts or polos and dress shoes.  Yet they still encounter hurdles when entering Houston bars and clubs that do not specifically cater to African American crowds.

As this story went viral, Gaslamp has doubled down on their actions that night.  The company’s attorney has essentially been their spokesperson.  The attorney has been interviewed by several news stations and on Friday released a scathing unprecedented video defending Gaslamp to the general public.  He has noted several things that I found interesting.  First he said that groups of men with no women are asked to pay cover to enter.  Gaslamp attempts to keep the ratio of men and women balanced.  They reserve the right to deny someone who does not meet their dress code, which is not posted.  He also says the men were NOT denied entry they were just asked to pay a cover.  Next he added that that this does not amount to discrimination and is not prohibited by law.  Finally, he ended with a somewhat endorsement of HERO, a local ordinance that will allow the city of Houston to act on discriminatory behavior.  Ironically, HERO would enable the city of Houston to take action against bars just like Gaslamp.

I wanna unpack some of the attorney’s statements here:

  1. First off, I find it interesting that the attorney is serving as a Public Relations person.  Where is the PR team?? Everyone is not Olivia Pope, the fixer with a legal background.  In my personal opinion, a legal background does not equip you with the tools needed to explain a difficult issue to the public.  It is not like arguing a point in court but attorneys treat it that way.
  2. The attorney likes to note that the men were not denied entry to the club. He has repeated they were just asked to pay. Hmmmm but what is the point of the cover charge? Based on who is asked to pay, the goal is to discourage the person from entering the club.  Patrons know they can find a nearby bar where they can enter for free and spend that $20 on drinks so they often decline to pay.  Also, has he ever heard of a poll tax?  Creating a barrier for someone to cross before exercising a right is problematic.  The cover charge operates like a modern day poll tax.
  3. Arguing that a private club is not controlled by any discrimination law is completely inapplicable here.  Yes, Houston does not have a discrimination statute, like most major cities, but the feds cover this area. Generally the Civil Rights Statutes touch and limit the government’s actions. BUT there are various ways that Congress reaches private actors, especially when it affects interstate commerce.  I have heard many people falsely stating that the federal government cannot prevent a night club from discriminating because it is a private club and thus exempt.  The private club exception does not apply to nightclubs and bars, which are open to the public.  The private clubs that are excluded are those that are not open to the public, not you Gaslamp.  You can find the relevant statute here.
  4. Gaslamp also argues that regardless of the above, they are not discriminating against patrons.   Hmmm interesting because Department of Justice (“DOJ”) sanctioned a bar over on Washington a few months ago for doing the SAME THINGS!  Kung Fu Saloon and Restaurant settled with DOJ after allegations of discrimination.  DOJ found that Kung Fu discriminated against African American and Asian patrons through dress code rules which were arbitrarily applied.  Read more about that here and here.
  5. The bar has no posted rules regarding entry and allows the bouncers to use their own discretion.   From a legal standpoint, when you do not have standard rules that apply to everyone, you open yourself up to questions such as why am I being treated differently.  I am amazed that bars would allow their bouncers to have that much discretion, because it opens them up to liability.  If the bouncers “discretion” was discriminatory the bar is on the hook.  Best practice is to apply the same rules to every single person who walks through your door.  No matter their race, gender, age or friendship with the employees!  Also, post the rules so it is clear, you are not making the rules up as you go.

These are just some of my thoughts on the situation. Gaslamp was actually on my list of bars to visit, but I have scratched it off due to this incident.  Aside from the “was it discrimination or not” debate, the complete dismissiveness of the bar once the allegations were made is astonishing to me.  People always remember how you made them feel and in this instance, these patrons felt disrespected.  At a minimum ACKNOWLEDGE that and work to ensure that no one else ever leaves your bar feeling that way!