The price of discrimination

May 31, 1994

A year ago, when six black Secret Service agents accused the Denny's restaurant in Annapolis of discrimination, reaction to the complaint split into two categories.

There were those who believed that the agents experienced racial bias; after all, they were still waiting to be served an hour after arriving at the restaurant while their white colleagues, who had come with them, were finishing their breakfasts. There were also many who said they were sick and tired of hearing screams of "discrimination." They defended Denny's with a backhanded compliment, saying it doesn't discriminate, it just has poor service.

Today, there is little doubt that Denny's did discriminate, not just in Annapolis, but across the country. Flagstar Companies Inc., Denny's parent, has agreed to pay $46 million in damages to the Secret Service agents and thousands of others who say they were victims of discrimination.

Flagstar insists that it settled so as not to go through costly litigation. But the largest settlement in the history of the 1964 Civil Rights Act hardly seems the kind of sum one pays to avoid court costs.

While the involvement of the Secret Service and the Justice Department gave this case a national focus, it was the sheer number of less celebrated cases that lent credence to the agents' story. The argument that it was just "poor service" became less tenable against the backdrop of thousands of complaints by black patrons who were ordered to leave restaurants, asked to pay cover charges or pay their bills before receiving their meals, segregated from white customers and subjected to racial epithets.

One of the Secret Service agents commented that the money is not as important as the sanctions imposed against Denny's to avert discrimination in the future. More important still is the message this settlement sends to every place of business, whether it is a national chain or a mom-and-pop operation: Violating the law that protects against discrimination in public places carries a high price.

Unfortunately, only a Pollyanna would expect the Denny's case to guarantee minorities fair treatment. Too many people still use racial slurs or take "precautions" like making blacks pay up front without realizing that what they are doing is discrimination. But knowing that Denny's had to fork out $46 million ought to make them think twice.

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