Imagine you go to a nightclub one evening and almost everyone is white. The entry line moves smoothly, you walk in quickly, check your bag at the door, grab a drink and enjoy the party.
Now imagine you go back to the same nightclub the next evening and almost everyone is Black. This time, menacing-looking security guards frisk your body and search your bags before you even walk through the door. Unlike the night before, bags are not allowed to enter the club, and this time your $90 headphones are confiscated at the door and dumped into a cardboard box because security thinks they could be used as a weapon "to strangle someone."
That's almost exactly what happened to me at a New York City nightclub last year when I found a dramatic racial disparity in security. Threatening to take the headphones was the last straw. I walked out and never came back. Immediately after the incident, however, I contacted the club promoter by email, and he openly acknowledged the disparate treatment. "You are absolutely right," he admitted. "We do not search patrons on other nights."
I wrote back and told him he was violating the law by creating separate admissions policies, but he explained that the additional security was necessary with the mostly Black crowd because he had once run a "big hip hop night" at a different nightclub and experienced some problems. After I threatened to report him to the New York City Human Rights Commission, he wrote back and told me to "go for it" and explained that he had talked to his lawyers, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the 10th police precinct, and they all confirmed he was acting within the law.
As promised, I then filed a complaint, which the city human rights commission reviewed and investigated. Ten months later, the commission determined there was "probable cause" that the nightclub had violated the law. Then, with a court date looming, the business – XL nightclub – and the promoter – John Blair – finally agreed just this week to settle the case by paying a $5,000 fine to the city, undergoing training for all their staff and changing their security policies so that everyone will now be treated equally, no matter what night they come to the club or which party.
The settlement this week was a small victory against racial profiling, but in reality the problem was never isolated to the nightclub or promoter I sued. I've been to several other nightclubs in New York City that also treat African-Americans differently from other crowds. And from my limited experience, racially biased security policies seem to be a problem in other cities as well. As people of color in a white-dominated society, we often learn to adjust to the indignities of unequal treatment by assuming we can't do anything about it.
But we can. We can begin by telling our stories, filing formal complaints and standing up against the injustice when it happens.
As President Obama said last month, "There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store." He included himself among that group as he spoke in the wake of the trial that acquitted George Zimmerman for killing unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. His point was that racial profiling was far more pervasive than the actions of a rogue neighborhood watch member in Florida. Nor, for that matter, could the problem be confined to law enforcement. After all, Zimmerman was not a police officer. Neither were the department store security guards who followed Barack Obama or the security guards who stopped and frisked me at XL nightclub last year. Those were private acts of racial profiling.
In my case, the racial profiling took place at a gay nightclub in a community that often prides itself on its acceptance. But the stereotyping and the post-hoc justification by the white gay promoter exposes the lie that gays and lesbians often tell themselves to prove they are somehow magically inoculated from the racial prejudices of the larger society. It also shows the pervasiveness of these biases that have seeped into every corner and crevice of our society. Imagine a George Zimmerman behind the velvet rope at hundreds of nightclubs in Manhattan and then you'll understand the scope of the problem.
Ironically, these stories of racial profiling occur as the nation prepares this month to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Dr. King would surely be proud to see some of the progress we've made over the past five decades, but his most famous words in that famous speech still remain unfulfilled.
"I have a dream," Dr. King hoped, "that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Fifty years later, judging by the attitudes of store security guards, club promoters, neighborhood watch members and far too many others, we still have a long way to go.
Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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