Somewhere amid the jumble of decoration and bric a brac that makes up the interior design of restaurants from the local diner to the fanciest eatery, you will find a sign that lets you know that they have the right to refuse service to anyone. The line can be explicit, like if you happen to show up expecting to be served without wearing shoes or a shirt. The entire United States is covered by the Federal of 1964, which prohibits discrimination by privately owned places of public accommodation on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin. Places of “public accommodation” include hotels, restaurants, theaters, banks, health clubs and stores. Twenty states, including New York and California, have enacted laws that prohibit discrimination in public accommodations based on sexual orientation. In California, you also can’t discriminate based on someone’s unconventional dress. What this means is that a business cannot pick and choose those whom they refuse to serve. It cannot be arbitrary.
If someone shows up with shirt and shoes and no further dress code is established, I suppose that patron would have to be seated if he or she neglected to put on pants. A bakery could choose not to make a wedding cake for a gay couple if it did not conflict with any state laws. That business would have to practice this exclusion without exception. And it would still feel like discrimination.
Because it is. It's protected discrimination. It's the second stated definition of the word: recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another.
Do I believe that all of this reckoning was going through the mind of the owner of The Red Hen, located in Lexington, Virginia? Owner Stephanie Wilkinson told The Washington Post that one of the chefs had called her at home to tell her Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary, was sitting in the tiny restaurant, and that the staff had concerns. Wilkinson then drove over, huddled up with her staff and asked whether they would like Sanders to leave. They said yes. Ms. Sanders was asked to leave, and she complied. The owner said she and Sanders stepped outside, where Wilkinson explained that her establishment has “certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty, and compassion and cooperation.”And then the questions began.
Was this discrimination of the first definition, the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things? Are honesty, compassion and cooperation the basis of a policy that can be used for all potential customers? Diving just a tiny bit deeper, can one's political affiliation be that standard? How about judging someone by their employer?
And the answer is pretty clear: No.
Do I understand it? Yes.
I can't condone Robert De Niro tossing out an F-bomb aimed at Trump while presenting at the Tony Awards. I flinch at the less than careful rhetoric of my side, like Peter Fonda's suggestion that Barron Trump be pulled from his mother's arms and put in a cage with pedophiles. This moves the discussion from the civil to the decidedly less than civil. We are living in times that are decidedly less than civil, but I would like to advocate for us all to remember how we got here in the first place. By drawing lines based on that first definition of discrimination, the one that uses the word "unjust," we are continuing a fight that has no end. It cannot be arbitrary, and anger bends the arc in that direction. Let us continue to work on an arc that bends, in the words of Dr. King, toward justice.
Now if we can all just get together and push.