Thousands of discrimination complaints are filed every year. Some of them make the local news pages; most we never hear of. It takes a national cause celebre, such as the federal lawsuit involving six black Secret Service agents versus the Denny's restaurant in Annapolis, to wake us up to the fact that this country has far to go in race relations.
The agents, assigned to protect President Clinton at the U.S. Naval Academy two months ago, sat for a full hour without being served while white customers all around them, including their own colleagues, were waited on.
Just slow service, as Denny's claims? That's possible. But it is difficult to believe that a group as conspicuous as 21 uniformed agents could walk into a restaurant and a third of them could be forgotten, as if invisible.
It is up to the courts to decide what caused the delay -- racial bias or incompetence. But it is already clear that Denny's handled this complaint with a lack of sensitivity to racial issues. The restaurant manager, Tom Nasser, did not take the possibility of discrimination seriously enough to bother reporting it to his superiors -- a mistake that got him fired when the lawsuit was filed.
These Secret Service agents were credible, educated, even intimidating-looking customers. Why didn't the manager take their complaints seriously? If Denny's wouldn't try to resolve the complaints of these officers, what black customer would they take seriously?
Many Americans have deluded themselves into thinking we have achieved racial equality. But discrimination still exists. We see it elsewhere in this county: Annapolis service clubs still refuse to accept blacks; banks are three times more likely to turn down black loan applicants than whites; parents balk at switching their children to predominantly black school districts.
The 20th century is nearly done. The old excuse that overcoming racial tensions takes time is getting tired. We've had time. We are enlightened enough to know how to treat one another. Yet every day people are left sitting in restaurants, denied housing or rejected for a job because of race.
The nation pays attention when the people discriminated against are the president's men. But what does that tell us about the plight of more ordinary victims of discrimination?