Unearthing this 2013 column because Overton Square, developed by Loeb Properties, is in the news following the release of a recording that allegedly captures a Loeb descendant making racial slurs. The descendant’s attorney says the audio is fake. My column about that here.
No super baggy clothing, no big chains worn outside of shirts, no large plain white T-shirts, no hats turned to the back.
The dress code posted last week at Bar Louie wasn’t as disturbing as segregation-era “No Colored Allowed” signs, but for Garrett McQueen, it felt much the same.
McQueen, a 26-year-old bassoonist with the Detroit Symphony, saw the policy as racial profiling. It was a way for management to signal what the uninvited look like, who belongs and who does not, all without saying a word.
Using clothing common to young black men as a proxy for anything is unsettling, particularly “in light of what is still being discussed concerning hoodies and Trayvon Martin,” McQueen wrote in a July 29 online review of the bar.
Trayvon was wearing a hooded sweatshirt on his way home from a Sanford, Fla., convenience store when he was spotted by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in February 2012.
Moments before Zimmerman shot and killed the unarmed 17-year-old black boy, he told a 911 dispatcher that the teen looked like “a real suspicious guy.”
Trayvon’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal on charges of second-degree murder sparked a national debate about racial profiling.
When the bar’s owner, Tony De Salvo, read McQueen’s review, he took down the sign. “Why did I take it down? I never put it up to offend anybody,” he told me by phone Friday.
He’s invested $1 million in the bar, he said, and just wants it to be “upscale.”
“I don’t want the thug element,” he said. “I don’t want someone who is going to cause trouble.”
Bar Louie’s sign was an outlier in Overton Square. Out of eight restaurants near the intersection of Madison and Cooper, only Boscos, which doesn’t care for sleeveless shirts on men, and Local, which has a sign slightly less specific than Bar Louie’s, have dress codes posted.
The sign seemed like a solution in search of a problem, said McQueen, who is black. “You don’t see a lot of people who would be dressed like that in Overton Square anyway.”
After the restaurant opened in April, regulars — black and white — complained about other patrons — also black and white — whose underwear was showing, De Salvo said, who acknowledged there’s no connection between that fashion faux pas and jewelry or oversized shirts.
He ran the sign, which is used at other Bar Louie locations, past his management team, which includes three black people.
They were fine with it, he said, although he concedes subordinates might not be comfortable disagreeing with their boss.
De Salvo, who is white, seems like a nice guy. I am confident he had no ill intent — and yet even this congenial, conciliatory businessman equates certain clothing with bad character. And the dress code managed to be offensive and overlook the original eyesore, exposed underwear.
The disconnect between De Salvo’s view of the sign and McQueen’s reflects the country’s yawning divide in how black and white people perceive the world.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken after the July 13 Zimmerman verdict asked if America is a country where people are judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.
A stunning 79 percent of black people poll said no. Fifty-nine percent of whites said yes.
Said McQueen, who was nattily dressed when we had lunch and when he dined at Bar Louie: “You can’t help but read between the lines. They’re trying to make it nice and safe at the expense of profiling.”
Here is where Zimmerman’s fans will get their knickers in a twist. Black men in big white T-shirts, bold jewelry and baggy jeans — regardless of their age, demeanor, degrees, employment — are indeed scary, they say. They make up the majority of the criminals on TV, their brown faces corralled in orderly rows of mug shots in this paper.
Lumping them all together in one nondescript clot isn’t stereotyping, the logic goes. It isn’t denying black men’s humanity while reducing ourselves to fearful, intellectually lazy cretins, It’s rational — as was De Salvo’s sign.
To his credit, De Salvo didn’t make any such specious argument, although he disagrees that the sign was offensive. He didn’t dismiss McQueen, who still gave Bar Louie three of five stars online, as hypersensitive. He didn’t get defensive.
Instead, he saw this as opportunity to learn.
“Help me work out something that will help me meet my goals and it won’t come across as a way to offend anybody,” he said.
What about, I suggested, telling customers what you want, instead of only what you don’t want? Use humor to take the edge off and address specifics without dragging in stereotypes.
For example: “We want to see your style, we want to see your smiles, but we don’t want to see your drawers.”
Said De Salvo: “Can I write that down?”
This was originally published in The Commercial Appeal Aug. 4, 2013. The link no longer works, so I’m posting it here.