A Baltimore restaurant group that has previously been accused of creating dress codes targeting nonwhite customers has apologized after a black woman posted a video showing a white manager refusing to seat her and her son because he said the boy violated a ban on athletic wear.
The footage of the incident at Ouzo Bay in Baltimore’s Harbor East, which drew accusations of racism on social media, showed the boy’s mother pointing out a similarly dressed white boy whose family had been served.
Atlas Restaurant Group, which owns Ouzo Bay and more than a dozen other eateries in and around the city, initially said the manager shown in the video has been placed on indefinite leave and the company was “sickened” by what happened. In a subsequent statement posted on social media, the company said it had conducted an internal investigation and as a result, two restaurant managers were “no longer with the organization.”
“We sincerely apologize to Marcia Grant, her son and everyone impacted by this painful incident,” the company said in a statement posted on Twitter, apparently naming the woman who was denied a table. “This difficult situation does not represent who or what Atlas Restaurant Group stands for.”
In the video, a manager appears to take issue with the little boy’s outfit — athletic shorts, an Air Jordan T-shirt and tennis shoes, indicating at one point that his shorts might be the issue. The mother filming the encounter had panned her camera to an outdoor area of the restaurant, where another boy appeared to be wearing a similar ensemble.
“You’re telling me there’s no athletic wear?” she is heard asking. “The little boy out there had on tennis shoes and an athletic shirt. So why does he get to wear athletic wear and my son can’t?”
A woman who appeared to be the boy’s mother posted a message accompanying the video to Facebook and Instagram. “I have faced racism time and time again,” she wrote. “But it’s hard [expletive] when you have to see your child (9yo) upset because he knows he’s being treated different that a white child!!!”
Commenters were swift to condemn the restaurant and vowed to avoid it.
In its statement, the company said that it was dropping dress code constraints for children younger than 12 and that it considered the event a “teachable moment.”
A sister restaurant of Ouzo Bay last year similarly drew an outcry. Seafood restaurant Choptank, also owned by Atlas, prompted accusations of racism when it posted a sign banning various items including baggy clothing (“pants must be worn at the waist”), backward or sideways hats, and work and construction boots. It later amended the policy, lifting the ban on baggy clothing, below-the-knee shorts and sunglasses worn after dark, and adding an exception for religious garments on its policy against brimless hats.
Atlas is owned by brothers Alex and Eric Smith, whose father, Frederick Smith, is a co-owner and director of the conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group, which operates TV stations around the country.
Such dress codes are often fraught, legal experts note, and can be designed to give managers and others a pretext for discrimination. Melissa Washington, a partner at Outten and Golden who specializes in discrimination law, says that even if a policy seems neutral on its face it can be deemed illegal.
She says companies are more vulnerable to lawsuits if they demonstrate that there is a pattern and practice of using certain items on dress codes as a proxy. “A restaurant can say that it’s evenly enforced and not used to discriminate,” she said. “But not when you’re disproportionally targeting black patrons — or when you peel back the layers, and the attire they are targeting is the cultural attire of the African American community.”
Wendy Greene, a law professor at Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law who studies appearance and grooming-code discrimination, says the modifications that Ouzo Bay made, including eliminating the dress code for children under 12, don’t fix its problems — in fact, they might wind up creating more situations in which patrons could be targeted based on their race. “We have enough research to know, for example, that African American boys and girls are perceived to be older than white children,” she says.
Greene says it would be difficult for most restaurants to establish a dress code that wouldn’t have the potential to result in racial discrimination. It would have to be a strictly enforced, highly specific, no-exceptions policy (i.e., one that would require extensive training and a lot of kicking out of patrons of all races), she says.
“My suggestion is to think about what are your motivations and what are the consequences, both for those denied service and those related to the culture you’re trying to create,” she says. “And you have to consider the reputational and potential financial costs of enforcing it.”
More from Voraciously: