Friday, April 20, 2012

A black guy and a biker walk into a bar...

Ok, I'm feeling productive. El kid is currently entertaining himself with a foam innertube and will be heading down for his afternoon nap soon. Let's do this.

I heard recently about a bill that was introduced in the Colorado state legislature that would have made it illegal for businesses to discriminate against bikers. Apparently, bikers sometimes go into bars and restaurants and are refused service because the managers don't want to deal with their kind.

Not surprisingly, the bill didn't even make it out of committee. But it did get me thinking.

I asked my husband, "Why is it okay to discriminate against bikers and not against black people?"

He said, "Because it is a choice to be a biker."

I said, "What does that have to do with anything?"

I'm guessing the reasoning goes something like this: If you don't like the fact that people treat you poorly because you are a biker, then stop being a biker. Problem solved.

Black people, women people, deaf people, older people--they don't have a choice to be in these particular groups, so if someone treats them poorly they need to have some sort of legal recourse.

There are two major problems I have with the whole I was born this way argument.

1) When a person says I was born this way it's like they're saying I can't help being this way. And when a person says, I can't help being this way, It's like they're saying, If I could help it, I would. Like when a person says, I can't help eating lots of chocolate what they are also saying is, I have no control over my chocolate eating habits, don't you think if I could eat less chocolate, I would?!!

By defaulting to the immutable characteristic argument, the person is in someway agreeing that their immutable characteristic is not ideal, but they have no control over it.

Perhaps my concern with this argument is obvious. But if it's not, I will explain it now.

It is true that I was born black. And as of right now, there is no way for me to change that fact about myself. However, even if I could change it, I wouldn't. I like being black, and it is a significant part of my identity. There is nothing inherently wrong with it, and so I don't see any reason to be anything different.

2) The second problem with the born this way argument, is that it opens up the idea that people who aren't born a certain way are legitimate targets for discrimination/poor treatment. Like bikers: Well, no one told you to be a biker, so if you don't like the dirty looks/decreased employment opportunities/ etc. you get, stop associating yourself with that lifestyle.

This completely overlooks the fact that it is the people who are doling out the poor treatment that are in the wrong, not the people choosing to wear leather pants and long hair. It doesn't matter if I choose to present myself in a certain way or not, am I not entitled to be treated with the same dignity and respect as people that appear in a way that is more pleasing to you?

Well, bikers have a reputation for being rowdy, it makes sense that a restaurant owner might not want them there.

Well, black people have a reputation for being rowdy too. But if you turn a black guy away from your restaurant because he's black, he can sue you.

This leads me into a nice transition to my next point: Why is it illegal to discriminate against people of a certain race, sex, age etc.?

One thing that I learned from reading The Help was that it was illegal for black and white people to commingle. Now, I know that they were called Jim Crow laws, but I didn't put two and two together that black and white people couldn't eat at the same lunch counter, even if they wanted to. In my mind, it was like the stuff about voting and running for office were the laws, and the stuff about the restaurants and stores were more like customs. But no, it would appear that even if a black person and white person were each consenting to hang out together in a public place, they could be arrested.

Obviously, this is bad. But I don't necessarily agree that the answer to it's illegal to have black and white people eat together is it's illegal for black and white people not to eat together.

Ok, hear me out. What rights do individual business owners have about who they will or won't serve in their establishments? You may remember that Rand Paul made a similar argument, but he got his booty handed to him.

Clearly, it is okay in our society for a business owner to say, We don't serve bikers. Why not okay to say we don't serve black people? Is it because black people went through slavery and bikers didn't?

I personally would like to go to places where I am welcomed with a smile, and not have to wonder if I am being served only because it would be illegal not to serve me. If a person put up a sign that said whites only, that might be better, because then I would know that that person didn't want me (or my money) and I could find another establishment to support. It would also help because then I would know which of my white friends did go to these businesses, which would help me get a better understanding of what their priorities were. Like how I can't go to Chick-Fil-A anymore for delicious chicken sandwiches with extra pickles because Chick-Fil-A doesn't like gay people.

It seems like a more reasonable response to Jim Crow laws would have been, it's no longer illegal for blacks and whites to hang out, so now do whatever you choose to do. Some business would have stayed segregated, and some would have decided to integrate. And everyone would know where they were and weren't welcome.

Well, black people pay taxes and small business owners get tax breaks, so these businesses should be open to everyone.

Bikers pay taxes too.

It's like by making discrimination illegal, we didn't stop people from wanting to discriminate--we just basically forced them not to. And that forcing thing hasn't really been going very well. Because most places where there is some element of choice--schools, churches, neighborhoods, etc. are still quite segregated.

If discrimination was still legal, we would all have much clearer picture of what we were working with. Perhaps I could avoid situations like this one. Maybe we could finally see just how far we have (or haven't) come.

Just a couple of other things before I close: I would not be a proponent of making discrimination legal in any public or government space (like libraries, government buildings, public schools etc.) Also, it is quite possible that since I never lived in the era of whites only signs that I have no idea of their damaging psychological impact. Perhaps being followed around in stores and/or receiving poor service is actually a major upgrade.

My basic point is this: In an ideal world, anyone could go anywhere and be treated with kindness, because we all recognized each other's common humanity. But there is a reason that be nice is not a law in any state, city or municipality: Because you can't legislate morality. People don't treat others decently because they have to, they do it because they want to. We should be focusing on getting people to want to, not forcing their hands through laws.

So what do you think? Is this the most brilliant thing you've ever read? Are you wondering if I smoked something since it's 4/20? Whatever your thoughts, you know I want to hear them. Leave me a comment!


  1. I don't know where to start with this one because you've brought law into this!

    On a basic level, I agree with how discrimination laws are structured (i.e., the immutable characteristics metric).

    Where do you draw the line with your bikers? If someone wants people to wear shoes in his establishment, that's his prerogative to exclude barefoot people.

  2. This was a really thought provoking post. I am white, sixty, southern, and remember the segregation. I'm not sure that giving people more legal room to discriminate would bring out the best in people. I'm afraid it would be like the proverbial "give him an inch and he'll take a mile."

    I'm surprised you were surprised that Jim Crow laws were LAWS. I've read that one of the reasons Eleanor Roosevelt was a lightening rod is that she refused to be segregated. She once was at a large event and took a chair and sat right in the aisle between the blacks and the whites.

    There are all kinds of bikers. I can understand a restaurant owners fear of SOME bikers in his establishment. If people are clean and mannerly, most people can, and should, accept them anywhere, no matter who or what they are.

    1. I forgot to say that in the matter of shoes that is also likely a law. In my state the health laws say that no one may go into any business that serves food without wearing shoes and a shirt.

  3. Yes!!! See, we have this conversation, or variations on it in the LGBT community all the time. Back along Stonewall times, the idea seemed more along the lines of "I'm gay and gay is good, and if you don't like it, *(^%$ you!" It seems like now that "we" (certain "respectable" we's) want to get married, we sound more like the whiny brat in the corner of the schoolyard that no one ever wanted to play with. "Uhhh...but it's not my FAULT!! C'mon, share with me! Give me the ball! I want a turn.." and so on.

    You may want to read Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino if you haven't already. His book makes the case that civil rights laws as they've been written have failed us because they protect someone's right to BE, but not to DO. Apparently a lot of time when one goes through the court system with a complaint, the courts will come down on the side of the folks discriminating against you if it's an issue of something you're doing that is part of who you are.

    So in the U.S. we've made it to the point legally where it's ok to be something, as long as you hold your breath and don't let it out. He says the next evolution of rights laws are going to have to expand to understand how people live their lives. But he writes much deeper than that too.

    @Paula: I don't know about requiring people to be "clean and mannerly" in order to get served somewhere. That's an awfully slippery idea. Am I clean and mannerly by myself, but still just as much if I come in to a place to eat and am holding hands with another dude? Even if I'm paying him exactly the same type of affection the straight couples in the room are, some places would think that's just "nasty" and make us leave. Same with the places around here that kick out trans folks because they're "gross". Even with protection legally, places will find a way to not serve or hire you if they want to.

    And it's a false comparison to talk about what kind of people you will and won't serve and wearing shirt and shoes regs in the same breath. Not so much nowadays, but there are some ways folks can pass diseases around in public places by not wearing shoes and shirts around others. There's actually documented proof and data to back it up.

    To my knowledge, no one has ever died or caught any illness because they had to serve a person of color, someone who is disabled, or an LGBT couple when they didn't want to. :-)

  4. OK, I have two comments.
    First, the idea that "born that way" has more validity in asserting equality is nonsense. The reasons for granting equality are about respect and inclusion not intrinsic characteristics. Not granting equality on intrinsic characteristics is about exclusion and disrespect.
    Biker groups who roar into town and take over bars or restaurants are a big bore not because of intrinsic versus accidental characteristics, but because the disrespect the other patrons seeking service. They should be penalized using harassment laws if they do that. If they are respectful they should get respect.
    Second, the rules about shoes and shirts (and pants too) in restaurants are no different than rules about coats and ties in restaurants. They are class code markers or decorum politeness requirements. I have a problem with them, but probably would not want to patronize a restaurant with those requirements.
    One of my great restaurant experiences was having a mess of steamed crab on the patio of a beach restaurant in Virginia Beach, right after we crossed the bridge from the mainland. We laid out for a while, got hot and sweaty, and then took a dip, toweled off and went to drink beer and eat crab for lunch. Wet swim suits and sandals. I don't think it is there anymore. The Chesapeake Bay crab is not plentiful anymore either, but you can still get a dozen steamed at some restaurants in Virginia Beach (in season pricing).

  5. Aad I guess my White Privilege is shining through . . . that was in about 1977, and there were open accommodations laws in effect. But, I am sure a person of color would not have been served at that restaurant.

  6. Anonymous1:54 PM

    I think you need to just start holding coffeetalks with this stuff so we can have a discussion about it. It's really hard for me to find the time/energy to type out a thoughtful response but I WANT to and have much to say, because this was a thought-provoking one.

    IN a nutshell, I think that while you have a point that forcing people to desegregate has not erased segregation, I do think it was necessary to do so. At a very basic level, it is far easier to form opinions about people you don't know if you NEVER have to interact with them. But once a connection is made, even if it's something as small as serving a family at a local restaurant or ringing up a purchase at a store, that family/person immediately becomes less of an "other" and more of a "like me." Eye contact, a touched hand while passing back change, a request for more coffee, etc., all matter.

    I have to believe that those small connections, however forced, helped break down at least some of the walls of discrimination. IMO, HUMAN CONNECTION is the great equalizer.

  7. I think I agree with lovelylayercakes. I think it had to be forced at first or else most people would have likely gone on their merry way, doing what they had been doing. Humans are creatures of habit. Forcing the human connections, as lovelylayercakes put it, I think then allowed for barriers to be broken and new opinions to form.

    And thank you for your comments! I always appreciate them!

  8. Anonymous8:12 PM

    I think you're brilliant and think outside the box. I don't know that I would want someone to post that they didn't want me in their store because of what I look like, but I get what you're saying that if they did, we could take our money where we are welcomed with open arms. You make a lot of sense!