COVER- Dressing down: Was this bar speaking in Code?
Are big, baggy clothes bad news? Owners of Jaberwoke restaurant on the Corner recently decided the answer is yes. People sporting such duds, they claim, are more likely to be rude to staff and start fights in their establishment. So a month ago, citing "safety" and a wish to encourage "better behavior," the owners imposed a dress code banning various articles of clothing at Jaberwoke and their other two restaurants, The Virginian and West Main.
The action ignited a firestorm.
Banned items included white t-shirts, oversized t-shirts, baggy jeans, sweatpants, and hats without brims– in other words, the threads of choice of hip-hop music fans.
"It ain't dress; it's race," declared an outraged Rick Turner, local NAACP president and UVA's former Dean of African American Affairs at a meeting at the restaurant last week. "You really don't want black people in your bar."
It wasn't just Turner who was angry.
Controversy raged in the pages of the Cavalier Daily, and a new group suddenly sprang up on the popular student networking website, Facebook. Then came resolutions passed by UVA Student Council and the UVA chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The heat convinced Jaberwoke co-owner Anderson McClure to attend a packed student council meeting on Tuesday, March 20, and to call a public meeting at Jaberwoke on Wednesday afternoon, March 21. Nearly 50 students, most of them African American, filled Jaberwoke for the two-hour confab.
"The policies you've implemented are flawed," argued one female student. "They're based on preconceived notions."
"Making assumptions about these clothes is wrong," said another, and still others noted the irony that a restaurant that hosts a hip-hop night each Thursday would ban the clothing associated with the music. While students took turns and raised hands before commenting, tension erupted.
"Put away your cigarette," ordered one female student to audience applause, offended that McClure was smoking during the meeting. She demanded to know whether McClure would target red t-shirts if he thought they might spark violence. Others asked if he'd ban polo shirts if he noticed fights breaking out among the preppy set.
"Absolutely," McClure responded.
The debate spread online at the Facebook website.
"Did they seriously think we'd be too dumb to notice that their actions were clearly targeting blacks?" asked a poster, one of more than 400 members of the group dubbed "Hoos Against Jaberwoke."
A March 20 Cavalier Daily op-ed considered the complexity of the code. "Like a law forbidding rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges," writes Alex Solotorovsky, "a general prohibition on clothing worn primarily by young black men is a facially neutral rule whose greatest impact is felt by a single group."
Another writer, however, found the entire debate ridiculous, noting that clothing, like bars, is a personal choice.
"Those who seriously object to Jaberwoke's policies can walk a tortuous 20 feet to O'Neill's Irish Pub and spend their money there," wrote Cavalier Daily columnist Josh Levy. "A tear fails to fall from my eyes for the poor souls 'forced' to forgo Wednesday night karaoke."
Most attendees at the meeting believed the dress code represented veiled racism, but one African American student defended it.
"You all are lying to yourselves," said Chase Emanuel, a UVA third-year who bartends at the Biltmore Grill on Elliewood Avenue. He cited his own observations working late at night at that Corner area bar. White t-shirts, baggy jeans, and hats without brims are the outfit of choice for many troublemakers. "There is a trend, and you really can't ignore that."
Despite Emanuel's support, 75 minutes into the meeting, as McClure was peppered with questions and accusations of racism, he held up a sheet listing the verboten items.
"This is no longer our dress code," he declared, asking students to consult with him on creating a code more to their liking.
His announcement, however, didn't appease the crowd.
"I don't understand why you need a dress code at all," replied student Sage Garner, referring to the restaurant's other rules that specify unacceptable behavior (which include a ban on customers who don't tip). Another student wondered why McClure would trust them to make business decisions when they have no experience running a restaurant. The conversation returned to racial profiling and discrimination.
The day after the meeting, a frustrated McClure denied the accusations of racism, citing his diverse staff and multicultural clientele. "If you knew me," he says, "you'd know there's not a racist bone in my body."
The confrontational tone of the discussion "made me sad," he says. "It wasn't productive at all." He was especially disheartened to be presented with resolutions from the UVA Student Council and from the NAACP threatening further action after he had attended the Council meeting to hear students' concerns, and had voluntarily opened the restaurant to host the public discussion.
"It seems like no matter what I do, I'm going to be attacked," he says. "It's really, really disconcerting."
While McClure felt discouraged in the days after the public forum, those who attended said the meeting had value.
"Definitely productive," says Garner, a member of the UVA chapter of the NAACP, a peer advisor for UVA's Office of African American Affairs, and president of ReMiX, UVA's hip-hop a cappella group. "Members of the student body and Charlottesville community were able to voice their concerns in an effort to be heard and incite change," she says. That the dress code was "stripped," she adds, "is definitely evidence that something was accomplished yesterday."
If Garner and others are pleased that Jaberwoke dropped its dress code, they may now turn their attention to other local establishments with similar policies, including Rapture and O'Grady's.
"We've had a dress code for almost three years," says Mike Rodi, owner of Rapture and the dance club R2. Rodi's code also rules out oversized t-shirts and baggy jeans, partly because of what can be hidden underneath.
"You can conceal a small anti-aircraft carrier under some of those shirts," he says. "We've had people pull out weapons, mostly knives."
Is his dress code racist?
"It's not about skin color," Rodi insists. "If you come into Rapture, half the employees and customers are African American."
When someone– black or white– comes to the door in the oversized clothing popularized by hip-hop artists, Rodi says, there are two possibilities: "One is they just like the style, or two, they're embracing this thug identity." Simply telling them about the dress code actually helps bouncers screen for which group they fall into, Rodi says.
"If it's the former, they'll probably go home and change or go somewhere else. If you say it to the latter, they start screaming and cursing. The problems we've had seem almost invariably with guys wearing giant t-shirts."
Garner bristles at the assumption that baggy clothes suggest a prediliction for violence.
"I think it's irresponsible to randomly pick a dress code and think that will solve behavioral problems," she says. "Never has it been proven that banning people who wear baggy jeans prevents violence anywhere."
Despite a lack of hard evidence, a recent Cavalier Daily column suggests that it's not just white people who see a problem with hip-hop attire.
"Shouldn't we face the claim that McClure as well as older members of our own community have made that this sort of dress is associated with 'thuggish' behavior?" asked author Stephanie Henderson, who also argued that hip-hop attire is not the sartorial choice of only young black men.
"With reality shows like VH1's The White Rapper Show and with a large number of white youth walking around dressed like this," she wrote, "one can see that baggy jeans and white t-shirts are no longer exclusively 'black.'"
Charlottesville's sole African American City Councilor, Kendra Hamilton, suggests that the banned style of dress could be a way to discourage not only blacks, but lower-income patrons.
"I say, more particularly than blacks, 'townie' kids," says Hamilton. "Some of the items mentioned on the list of banned clothing are recognized styles worn by Charlottesville kids."
Still, she says, Jaberwoke is "a private business with a right to institute a dress code, and dress codes are by nature exclusionary."
Rebecca Glenberg in the Richmond office of the ACLU confirms that, in general, dress codes don't violate civil rights.
"Our concern with dress codes is that they will not be applied in an even-handed way," says Glenburg, who cites an undercover TV news investigation at a club with a dress code in Norfolk. Two young men, one white and the other black, went to the club dressed identically. The white man got in with no problem, Glenberg says, while the African American man was stopped at the door.
"Consciously or not," says Glenberg, "employees might not enforce the dress code in an evenhanded way."
Biltmore bartender Emanuel says that recently happened when an Asian student tested the fairness of Jaberwoke's dress code by deliberately wearing prohibited clothes to the restaurant and was allowed in.
"That's blatant racial profiling," says Emanuel. "If that were the reason for the protest and the hoopla, then I would have completely agreed."
"That is terrible," McClure said at the meeting when told of the situation. "If that happened, I take full responsibility," he added, promising to speak to his bouncers.
Hamilton says she hopes the controversy will cause everyone in Charlottesville to "think a little harder" about the profound racial issues and tension that exist and that periodically boil over, as they did in 2005 and 2006 during the eight-month tenure of divisive school superintendent Scottie Griffin. "We live in a divided community," Hamilton says. " There's tracking in the schools. Our neighborhoods are mostly segregated by race. The north side of town has more resources than the southside. The list goes on."
Emanuel, who started working as a bouncer at O'Neill's Irish Pub in August before moving to the Biltmore in December, says McClure wouldn't have had problems if he had made his dress code broader. Emanuel also thinks McClure should have defended the dress code more vigorously at the meeting rather than trying to be "so PC." He thinks if McClure had simply rewritten the dress code to remove any hint of racism, the outcry would have died down quickly.
"This is one of those instances where you have legitimate reasons for a dress code," he says, "but in order to not be misunderstood, it suits everybody better to mask the agenda a little bit."
Columnist Solotorovsky suggested implementing "positive rules such as 'collared shirt' or 'tuck in your shirt' or 'jacket after six.'" That, he wrote, would separate the "well mannered from the ill mannered without the confrontational tone or racial bias of the Jaberwoke dress code."
And Garner, who acknowledges that dress codes "exist for legitimate reasons in many places, most commonly to create a certain atmosphere that is consistent with the quality of the establisment," agrees that framing a dress code in positive terms would have quelled the controversy.
"If the code had a list of things to wear that did not include white t-shirts, etc., the people who wear those types of clothing would not get in," she says. "The difference is, they wouldn't have been singled out so blatantly."
PHOTO BY TOM DALY
"It's ridiculous to call for a dress code to push an entire group of people away," says Sage Garner, a member of the UVA chapter of the NAACP.
PHOTO TOM DALY
In response to the dress code, Greg Jackson created the facebook group "Hoos Against Jaberwoke," which now boasts more than 400 members.
PHOTO BY TOM DALY
Local NAACP president Rick Turner reads the posted dress code at Jaberwoke on March 21.
PHOTO BY TOM DALY
A little over an hour into the meeting, under pressure from nearly 50 students, Jaberwoke co-owner Anderson McClure repealed the dress code.
PHOTO BY TOM DALY