Whites never need wonder: poor service or discrimination?


A woman called on the phone the other day. She said she just had to get something off her chest.

As I listened, I had the feeling she was speaking for a lot of people.

"It's this Denny's business," she said, a little breathlessly. "It's got me very upset. Can you tell me why, whenever anything goes wrong for black people, they always yell discrimination?"

She was referring to the Denny's in Annapolis. Six African-American Secret Service agents have sued the restaurant for racial discrimination, charging that they were refused service while their white colleagues were eating at a nearby table.

When I asked her why she didn't believe the black agents were discriminated against, she proceeded to tell her story.

She said she'd been to a restaurant recently -- not Denny's -- and that once she had been seated, she waited to be served. And waited. And waited. And waited. In the meantime, she explained, a group of blacks sat at a nearby table. And they were served right away.

"It was just like the Denny's situation," she said. "But I didn't think discrimination. It never even crossed my mind. I never gave it another thought till I read about Denny's in the paper.

"Just because you get bad service doesn't mean it's discrimination. Bad service is bad service."

She's right -- in a way.

Just because you get bad service doesn't mean it's discrimination. If you eat out often enough -- and I confess to a few late-night stops at Denny's, but only if it was the only place open in some faraway town -- these things happen.

I've been in various restaurants where others were getting food and all I was getting was ignored. Complaints did no good. Whining did no good. Walking out did some good -- it made me feel better, but it didn't get me any food.

There must be a hundred different explanations for why one table gets shunned. Start with incompetence. Add short-handedness. Certainly, there's plain-old rudeness to be considered.

For blacks, though, the list grows to at least 101.

Here's another story: On the same day the black agents waited futilely to be served in Maryland, Denny's was signing a consent decree to stop discriminatory practices in some California restaurants.

These restaurants were accused of conducting what was called a "blackout." That's simply this: If too many black customers came to the restaurant, according to the suit filed against Denny's, the employees were told to begin discouraging black customers with poor service.

The thinking was, I guess, that if a restaurant had too many black customers, whites would begin to stay away.

Is this what happened in Annapolis?

ZTC I don't know. And the truth is, the agents don't know for sure either.

That may be the most insidious aspect of racism. If you're black and you've suffered discrimination -- and all blacks have -- how do you know when it's discrimination and when it isn't?

If you're white and you get bad service, you can assume it's bad service.

If you're black, you don't know.

If you're white and you get passed over for a promotion, it may be you weren't as good as the next guy. It may be the boss didn't like you. It may be a number of factors.

If you're black, it may be all those things, or it may be your skin color.

How do you know? How do you ever know? How can you tell when discrimination stops and when it begins?

I asked the woman on the phone these questions. She said she was 57 and grew up in Mississippi and had seen discrimination first-hand.

"I saw separate restrooms for blacks and whites, separate drinking fountains," she said. "You don't think that stuff goes on any more, do you?"

I told her another story I'd just seen in the paper. It was about a black police officer who was denied entry to a Midland, Pa., hunting club simply because of his race. "We don't want blacks," the club president said, just like that.

Anyone surprised by this story -- or the Denny's story, or a thousand other stories -- hasn't been paying attention.

Denny's has said the problem in Annapolis was slow service. But it also fired the restaurant manager, who failed to report the agents' complaint. And the restaurant chain just signed an agreement with the NAACP to improve minority relations. A lot of action for slow service.

Why do black people cry discrimination? It's an unfair question and an unfair complaint. End the discrimination first. Then ask the question.

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