Denny's and discrimination

June 01, 1993

Thousands of discrimination complaints are filed every year. Some of them make the local news pages; most we never hear of at all. It takes a national cause celebre like the federal lawsuit involving six black Secret Service agents versus the Annapolis Denny's to make us see just how far this country has to go in race relations.

The agents, assigned to protect President Clinton during an April 1 Naval Academy address, 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? It's possible; the chain is notorious for that. But it is difficult to believe that a group as conspicuous as 21 uniformed agents could walk into a restaurant and one-third of them be treated as if they were invisible.

It is up to the courts to decide what caused the delay -- racial bias or incompetence. But it's already clear that Denny's handled this complaint with a gross lack of sensitivity to racial issues. The restaurant's manager, Tom Nasser, did not take the possibility of discrimination seriously enough to bother reporting it to his superiors -- the kind of negligence that in itself suggests discrimination.

What is most amazing and disturbing about this incident is that these Secret Service agents were credible, educated, even intimidating complainants. They were wearing badges and guns, for heaven's sake. If Denny's wouldn't take their complaint seriously, what black customer would they take seriously?

Many Americans have deluded themselves into thinking this country has achieved racial equality. But discrimination still exists, even elsewhere in Anne Arundel County.

Annapolis service clubs still refuse to accept blacks. Banks are three times more likely to turn down black loan applicants as whites. Parents balk at switching their children to predominantly black school districts.

The 20th century is moving toward its end. The old excuse that overcoming racial tensions takes time doesn't work any more.

We've had plenty of 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 are the president's men. More ordinary victims rarely get a second thought.

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