For blacks, an old enemy has returned

April 01, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

MILWAUKEE -- "Welcome," said the sign over the restaurant door, but the friendly greeting was not meant for all. Certainly it did not apply to the black college students, in fur coats and pearls, dress suits and ties, who were drifting over from a nearby celebration of their homecoming for Christmas break.

The party, an annual event sponsored by Howard University students, had drawn hundreds from schools as disparate as Milwaukee Area Technical Institute and Morris Brown College in Atlanta. With the festivities over, small clusters of students independently decided to cap the evening with a snack. Later, in court papers, they would each describe a reception as frosty as the weather outside.

"We're not serving," or "We're closed," the manager told each new wave of arrivals, in twos and threes and half a dozens. The place advertised that it was open 24 hours a day. They could clearly see through the windows that customers were eating. Indeed, some say they watched as new patrons were admitted.

The students recall that everyone who got inside was white. "Everybody black was hungry," remembered Eric Lee, who was present that night.

Stephanie Houston and her companions headed home, puzzling in the car over whether their clothes had been wrong or their behavior offensive. They concluded the problem was an old one they thought their grandparents and parents had solved: the manager was just unhappy with the color of their skin.

The restaurant was an International House of Pancakes on the city's east side, and a federal judge in February approved a settlement requiring IHOP to pay $185,000 to make up for the December, 1991, incident. But it could just as easily have been the Buffalo Room in North Augusta, S.C., the Red Onion in Anaheim, Calif., the Glass Menagerie in Covington, Ky., or the Western Kountry Klub in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. All have settled or lost suits in the past four years over allegations of racist differences in service.

Or it could have been a Denny's in San Jose, Vallejo, Sacramento or San Diego, Calif., the targets of the latest accusations in a lawsuit filed last week by 32 plaintiffs. The U.S. Justice Department also says it has substantiated "discriminatory practices" at the restaurant chain. Denny's denied its acts constituted a "pattern of racial discrimination," but agreed to settle the Justice Department suit by beefing up its training program and reinforcing existing company policies against discrimination.

More than 30 years after the lunch counter sit-ins that launched America's civil rights movement, complaints are mounting that a black person still can't simply eat in the same setting as a white.

These days, the bias is generally more subtle and the struggle against it more sophisticated, say civil rights attorneys, sociologists and black restaurant patrons -- or would-be patrons. They talk of special cover charges, of being forced to prepay for food, of waiting in line while whites are ushered ahead, of being refused advertised specials.

In several of the court cases, employees have stepped forward to reveal how they were directed to limit the number of blacks in an establishment; white customers have testified about owners and managers openly discussing their disinclination to serve blacks.

"I see more direct evidence of discrimination now than in the late '70s," said Barry Goldstein, a civil rights attorney with the Oakland law firm that represents the private plaintiffs in the Denny's case.

He cites three reasons: Racism is now mixed in with fear of urban crime and gangs. The recession has fueled a backlash against affirmative action programs in the workplace. And a growing black middle class is more apt to appear where whites were once the only clientele, triggering strong reactions.

These are thoughts that wound. "I carry myself in a certain manner," said Christopher Johns, 25, who was turned away from the IHOP. "To be suspected like we robbed somebody or were violent or inmates or animals or something. . . . " He paused, eyes misting. "I thought this was over. I guess my generation has been sheltered from a lot of things."

Precise numbers about the frequency of such encounters are hard to come by. Only nine suits charging violation of the public accommodations law have been filed by the Justice Department in the last three years, but Paul Hancock, who heads the Housing and Civil Enforcement section, says "I doubt that number is an accurate reflection of what's really going on."

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