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East Village Bar Accused of Racist Door Policy

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New York nightclub dress codes that may disguise racial discrimination are under scrutiny.

The New York City Commission on Human Rights is investigating an allegedly racist door policy at The Continental, an East Village bar popular with college students for its cheap drink specials. This past weekend, an anti-discrimination group picketed outside the bar in solidarity with an African-American woman named Thelecia Covington, who filed a complaint in December claiming that she was turned away from the bar because of her race.

The bar's owner, Trigger Smith, says he turns away over 200 people a night, and that a dress code is necessary for survival in the nightclub business. He claims that it’s about a certain style and subculture—not race. “We turn away people in baggy jeans and saggy jeans and gangster clothes,” says Smith. “I’ve turned away people of all colors, and there are people of all colors inside my bar. We turn away white trash, we turn away the 'Jersey Shore' types. I have a blanket rule about that. I’m not judging anybody. I’m just running a business here.”

Jeanette Caceres, a public school teacher and member of the racial action group ANSWER, believes that Smith’s comments about dress are disguising an overtly racist policy. Caceres first contacted the bar's owner after a friend of another member of ANSWER, Shaniqua Pippen, was denied entrance to the club. Caceres found similar stories online, on sites such as Citysearch and Yelp. She also tracked down a Facebook group called “Boycott the Continental Bar NYC” with over 100 members who posted stories of being refused entry. Many were told that they didn’t meet the dress code, or that the bar was only letting in “people that they knew.”

“We thought there could possibly be a door policy that was discriminatory,” says Caceres. “There was no official written dress code. There was no dress code posted on the Web site of the bar. We asked the bouncers if there was a list. There was no such list.”

Caceres says she tried to set up a meeting with Smith to discuss the allegations, but that they could not agree on a meeting place. Caceres and ANSWER have since organized two pickets of the bar, and flyered the neighborhood with signs telling passers-by to boycott the club. She also sent a letter asking Smith to attend racial sensitivity training classes and host multicultural theme nights at the bar.

“I’ll discuss the door policy with you, but as far as hosting theme nights, when you start paying rent here, I’ll start talking about it,” says Smith, who vehemently denies any charges of racist door policy. “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” says Smith. “I would be militant if I was a person of color and I was turned away from because of my color. I was born and raised in New York. I’ve played sports with people of all colors. I’ve dated women of all colors.”

The Continental used to be one of the city’s top punk rock venues, but Trigger Smith changed the bar into a cheap-shots college drinking hole a few years ago, and says he’s finally turning a profit for the first time. A banner hanging over the entrance reads “5 Shots of Anything $10 All Day/All Night (Yes, we’re Serious).” On weekends, revelers line up outside around the block to take advantage of the deals before heading off elsewhere. Smith describes the bar as a “classy dive,” and says that he turns away more people than most Meatpacking District clubs. “It was either institute a door policy and a dress code, or lose my place and my staff. And that’s the truth.”

But is the Continental bar's policy legal? Kenji Yoshino, who teaches at NYU Law and specializes in discrimination cases, says that dress code discrimination suits are very common and very tricky. “In the first generation of discrimination, discrimination was very easy to spot, it took the form of ‘No Racial Minorities Allowed’. And that discrimination was easy to fight,” says Yoshino. “What we’re seeing is that there’s a second generation of discrimination that’s harder to spot. That takes the forms of employee or patron dress codes, for example. It doesn’t actually cut out all members of the group, but it will cut out members of that group that refuse to assimilate into the white mainstream.”

Yoshino says that even if the defendant--in this case the bar owner--is shown not to have discriminatory motives behind the policy, he can be found liable if the policy disproportionally affects minorities, unless he or she can prove a legitimate business purpose behind it. “So far, the precedents generally flow in favoring the employer (or bar owner),” says Yoshino. “But recently courts have been more sympathetic to these claims.”

In the complaint filed against Trigger Smith, Thelicia Covington claims that she and several African-American friends were turned away, and a group of white women on line behind them were let in without question. When they questioned the bouncer, who was also black, about the basis of the denial, he allegedly responded: “This is what the owner wants. Do you think I like denying my own people?”

If the Commission for Human Rights finds Smith guilty of discrimination, he may have to change his dress codes policies or pay damages to the city and Ms. Covington. “Unfortunately this happens all throughout the city,” says Jeanette Caceres. “It is unfortunate that one bar has to be targeted, but we feel we have proof that discrimination is happening at the Continental. It’s illegal and we’re standing against it because it’s a social injustice."

At the picket this weekend, Smith spoke with some of the protesters, and he says he’s willing to listen. “I understand it’s a sensitive issue, and that’s why I’m willing to meet with anybody. This is a sensitive thing. And people have the right to express themselves and be respected.”

Updated 2/1/11: This story has been updated with more information about the allegations against the Continental.