If ever there was a business establishment in the District where race was least likely to matter, you’d think it would be a sports bar. Among die-hard fans, the color of your jersey tends to trump the color of your skin.
But D.C. was changing, becoming more gentrified. And on this burnished social landscape, a different kind of sports bar — one more upscale — opened in 2010, near the Verizon Center arena downtown.
To attract the right kind of clientele, owner Mick Dadlani needed the staffers at his new bar, called Redline, to project a certain look. A white look, with bartenders and servers who were young, blond women.
In unabashed pursuit of that vision, Dadlani fired a black bartender, Briggitta Hardin, who had been hired without his knowledge. So she sued him for racial discrimination. And last month, on Jan. 21, a federal jury in the District rendered a verdict in Hardin’s favor and voted unanimously to award her $687,000 in damages.
“The case is important because it acknowledges that this kind of blatant discrimination still happens, even in places that have a diversity of people,” said Megan Cacace, a lawyer with Relman, Dane & Colfax in Washington and the leader of Hardin’s legal team.
Had Dadlani been just a tad more subtle, however, he might have gotten away with creating the look he wanted.
During the recession, equal employment opportunity almost seemed to lose its status as a civil right. Racial disparities in income and employment widened dramatically, no longer requiring the complicity of some racist ogre but smoothly perpetuated through an economic system geared to produce inequality.
Hardin’s encounter with Dadlani was like meeting the ogre, a Jim Crow incarnate.
“She introduced herself and extended her hand for the owner to shake, but he would not shake her hand or speak; he just turned and walked away,” Cacace said. “Ms. Hardin testified that he had a look of disgust, as if she had spit on her outstretched hand.”
Within an hour, Dadlani had her fired.
Afterward, Dadlani insisted on seeing every applicant before a job was offered “to prevent the hiring of another African-American employee,” the lawsuit said. Dadlani also indicated to his managers “a desire to employ a young, white, attractive staff to promote his vision of Redline as a white establishment.”
Redline — what a devilish name. Maybe the bar was named after the red line that divides an ice hockey rink, like the one at Verizon Center, in half. But for many the name brings to mind the illegal mortgage-lending practice called redlining, in which red ink on a map identifies white neighborhoods for receiving good service and defines the black ones for getting the shaft.
The latter now seems more appropriate.
Dadlani’s lead attorney, Sundeep Hora, of Alderman, Devorsetz & Hora in Washington, told me, “We respect the jury verdict.” Neither Hardin nor Dadlani was available for comment, according to their attorneys.
At the trial, evidence was presented that Redline had closed early one night when the crowd was predominantely African American.
The following night, a fake guest list was used to discourage blacks from entering.
According to Hardin’s lawsuit, Dadlani would sometimes try to make sure that black customers “had a horrible time so that ‘they’ would not return.”
The jury found that Dadlani, in firing Hardin, had violated the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The law, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, was passed a year after the end of slavery and the Civil War. A 19th-century law being used to redress the same old racial wrongs in the 21st century.
At least Hardin received some financial relief. Most black people who suffer economic losses because of employment discrimination do not complain but simply try to cope with the emotional and financial distress that it causes.
As for Dadlani, who the lawsuit said “acted intentionally, maliciously, oppressively, and with willful, callous, wanton, and reckless disregard,” he got off cheap.
Redline remains open. In a few days, there will be a Super Bowl featuring another black quarterback, and sports fans will gather at an upscale bar where the owner didn’t think blacks were fit to be bartenders.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.