At Studio 54 in New York, the crowds stand outside, shouting, begging and clawing like refugees in a bread line. The whole mob is dizzy hungry for one thing: to get inside. The well-known rule is that only stars get inside. But everyone is dying to be the star who walks in past the crush of nobodies outside.
In Washington, the same principle holds.The stars of government power, money, society, fame and beauty are assured a spot in any club -- whether they are wearing jackets or not -- and outside non-stars mumble about the dress code, identification cards and the club's being too crowded at the moment. With a mostly black population in Washington, there is an added anxiety for the unlucky blacks left outside. Even if they are not old enough, are not well-dressed, don't have ID cards and the club is full, there is the question: are they keeping me out because there are already enough blacks inside?
Now the city's human rights department has started an investigation of five predominantly white clubs that blacks have charged with "discriminatory practices." But investigating racial discrimination at a nightclub -- public or private -- is going to be like looking for one drop of rain in a rainstorm. There is so much discrimination at clubs, in all shapes and forms, that picking out only racial discrimination may be impossible.
Clubs that people like and are willing to spend big money at are probably the most discriminating and exclusive clubs -- discriminating, as in "we try to set a relaxed mood of class, distinction and ease with the right mix of people," in the words of one club manager. Also discriminating, as in we don't want too many blacks in here. Especially if the club is in a business district or a white neighborhood, like Georgetown, where too many blacks might make the regular white customers uncomfortable.
Even all-black clubs try to create a discriminating mix. At Foxtrappe, the city's premier black club, and a private club, there is a little desk by the door. Women in sexy dresses glide by the desk and so do older established men in thre-piece suits. No card is shown indicating they are club members. Sometimes an entrance fee is paid. But when a younger man (like me), with a very non-chic nylon shirt tries to get by the desk, an intimidatingly well-dressed man or woman will rise from behind the desk to ask: "Do you belong to the club? Sorry. You can't come in. This is a private club, members only."
As the human rights people investigate the after-hours scene, they are going to find that lots of people think the more discriminating a club, the better. The ideal club, in these people's view, would be patronized by world leaders (preferably royalty), beautiful women, movie stars, the filthy rich and -- everyone else is quick to shout -- "me."
The rest of us get to stand outside, acknowledging the greatness of the lucky ones inside. And it may even be that, if most of the people outside were asked if the club doors should be open on a first-come, first-served basis, they would say no; then all the stars wouldn't come and the club wouldn't be special. Clubs are for socializing. But clubs also offer the chance, for those hunting business connections or spouses, to be with discriminating people; to meet the big-time lawyers, government officials and businessmen whom average people don't meet at average-people house parties.
Being discriminating can be important to a club's financial success. It attracts some people. It is as important as letting pretty women or high-class call girls in free. Men with money and time to hang around nightclubs like flashy women, and men with money definitely get in, anaytime. In the dim light of a K Street nightclub, one club owner explained his money-making and discriminating policy of "exclusive clientele" with an analogy to the world of children: when kids stick pins in their fingers and press them together to make blood brothers, he said, they don't choose unpopular, dumb, ugly people to do it with. And when people -- black or white -- put on fancy clothes and plan to blow a few hundred bucks at a club, they want to be part of the elite, jet-set crowd. And those people will pay to go to a club that has the top crowd.
Some blacks, like some whites, can pay and qualify for the elite clubs. The problems, another club's manager said, come when his people working the door don't recognize the "better blacks." There are problems, too, when they don't recognize the better whites. But in clubs owned and run by whites, the odds are that whites will be recognized. And there isn't the racial edge to the whole confrontation.
The anger in the "club discrimination" controversy comes from that racial edge and from middle-class black people who -- by way of their education and achievement -- consider themselves very discriminating. Whey they don't get in because the guy at the door doesn't see the successful individual but sees black skin (and, after a point, decides too many blacks are un-chic), that starts city investigations into club admissions policies.
But the investigators have to keep in mind that even in the honky-tonk bars on 7th Street NW, in the midst of drug-dealers and small-time hookers, if you don't have a certain look -- maybe an Army fatigue jacket and shades -- you don't get in. Too bad, pal, your drink is going to be watered down and a lot of hard stares will come your way as a message to get out. No cops, no sociology students, whites or big-time blacks allowed. Everyone knows the score.
After its investigation, the human-rights department will know the score, too. But to do something about the exclusiveness of clubs will be like trying to change human nature. But that's not to say the investigation is useless. Making club managers aware that racial discrimination is not the right, socially approved thing to do is worth the city government's effort. And so is letting white club owners and managers, as well as their powerful, rich and pretty clients, know that blacks can be powerful. Powerful enough to have a city investigation started. Powerful enough to give them headaches with permits and licenses if the discriminating admissions policy gets too racial.