Some reactions to Denny's case hard to swallow

June 02, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

I had lunch the other day at Denny's because I was in a hurry and everybody knows you get fast service at Denny's as long as you have white skin.

This could explain the condition of the customers at the Denny's where I went: white, every one. Last week, Denny's settled a class action suit involving more than 4,300 complaints from those who were customers and those who merely attempted to be customers before Denny's stiffed them at the door.

It cost Denny's $46 million in legal settlements for refusing to serve blacks, or making them wait longer, or making them pay differently than white customers. This is a lot of money even when you've got 1,500 restaurants and you're serving a million people a day. But what's interesting isn't just the money, it's everybody's reactions.

The reaction from Denny's is: "isolated incidents." Are they beautiful? Do they think everybody's a moron? They've got 4,300 "isolated incidents," and nobody's supposed to suspect a pattern?

The reaction from a lot of white people is disbelief. What, another complaint? It's a case of black over-sensitivity, isn't it? It's an attempt to cash in on race, isn't it? It must have been blacks who got rowdy, wasn't it?

I have white friends in the restaurant business who talk about certain customers who happen to be black and happen to act inappropriately, and they want to remove them but worry about lawsuits based on civil rights. But Denny's isn't making any claims of rowdiness here (although, as everyone knows, some of those wild and crazy Secret Service agents, like the ones who couldn't get served at the Annapolis Denny's, can certainly party nTC like mad.)

L Meanwhile, the reaction from the U.S. Justice Department is:

It was much more malignant than we think.

Denny's was practicing systematic racism, the government says. It's in the court papers: scores of sworn statements describing training sessions where Denny's officials taught restaurant operators how to chill black customers at the door, how to make them pay in advance, or seat them where white customers wouldn't notice them, or simply told them the restaurant was closing when it wasn't.

This is interesting on any number of counts, including what it says about blacks and whites communicating with each other. We'd sooner accuse, we'd sooner suspect, we'd sooner choose up sides than talk.

My white friends in the restaurant business have a completely valid point: If customers are loud and vulgar, they should be tossed out without owners worrying about legal repercussions. To say otherwise isn't only unfair to the restaurant owners, but a slap at customers who are not loud and vulgar. And, let's be clear about this, the rule's the same whether the owners, or the offensive customers, are black or white.

But blacks who make the charge against Denny's -- or any place practicing discrimination -- also have a point. Decades after we were supposed to have halted such practice, we still haven't.

And some people we haven't even mentioned yet should feel more embarrassed than anybody.

Take Jerry Richardson. He's the owner of Flagstar Companies, Denny's parent, and he's also the man who learned about the impending lawsuit last fall, while he was scrambling for the National Football League franchise he eventually won for Charlotte, N.C.

Richardson struck a pre-emptive deal with Benjamin Chavis, the NAACP executive director based here. In exchange for promises of jobs and contracts -- Denny's has 1,500 franchises in its chain and not one owned by a black -- Chavis embraced Richardson, publicly endorsed his football bid and dropped all thoughts of any NAACP suit against Denny's.

Meanwhile, how much did the NFL know (or care) about Richardson's race problems when they awarded him a franchise? Yesterday, NFL Director of Communications Greg Aiello said:

"We were aware of the allegations. The franchise was awarded to Richardson as an individual, not to Denny's restaurants. We're comfortable with the situation."

Is that satisfactory? Do we ignore guilt by association, or should we look for a Charlotte football stadium with all white faces in the stands, and blacks waiting outside being told there's no game today, when they can hear the sound of cheering inside the park?

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