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Human Rights Panel Dissects Dress Codes
Kansas Citian Brandon Ellington told of his experiences with the dress code at Power and Light District during a forum at the Bruce R. Watkins Center.
Credit:  Daniel Starling

At a forum entitled, “Is it your Clothes or your Color?”, sponsored by the Human Rights Commission of Kansas City, Missouri a panel of experts, academics, civil right activists and business owners were brought together to discuss the use of dress codes in the city.

The issue of whether or not dress codes were being used as a tool of racism became front page news a couple years ago when people of color, mostly African American men, began reporting problems with their enforcement at the Power and Light entertainment district Downtown.

Several complaints were made to the Human Rights Commission, which then took several steps to investigate violations of the Public Accommodations Law, initiated its own testing and worked with the management of Power and Light to make changes to the code.

Held at the Bruce R. Watkins Center, some panelists used their time to explain their experiences with dress codes around the city, while others discussed the social and legal implications of dress codes and their effectiveness. Members of the community also were given time to express their feelings about the issue and offer anecdotal information regarding the legacy of racism in Kansas City entertainment areas, including Westport and the Plaza.

Moderated by Daniel Weddle, Clinical Professor at the UMKC Law School, the issue of dress codes aimed at particular sections of the community—particularly people of color---came sharply into focus.

Nia Webster, organizer for Power and Lights Out (PLO) said her organization wasn’t against businesses establishing dress codes but want to help people understand about racial discrimination and how to properly report and respond to those incidents.

“Dress code should not be created to discriminate,” said Webster. “Dress is a perception. A person in a suit isn’t any different than someone with a white shirt and jeans. People who are troublemakers are troublemakers.”

Webster said her organization did a survey and that “90 percent knew someone who had been discriminated against.”

Anthony Burnside, a security specialist and consultant, who was Deputy Sheriff and former nightclub bouncer, said a business “had a right to have any dress code the want”.

“It should be posted on their website instead of people being surprised when they get there and are turned away,” said Burnside. “The point is to make money and have a good time.”

Burnside said when he worked as a bouncer in Westport the management let it be known what type of crowd they wanted; “Mix 93”, a local radio station that has a younger, white demographic.

Dr. Clovis Semmes, author and professor of Black Studies and Sociology at UMKC, said the phenomenon of dress codes is occurring nationally and its history was being written in places like Kansas City.

“They (dress codes) may be emerging as a proxy for racial discrimination,” said Dr. Semmes. “It’s a form of market regulation of prime commercial space.”

Dr. Semmes stated that factors like dress, musical selection and demographic targeting were raising many issues “regarding the physco-social perception of young black men” in “prime commercial areas”.

“If you played heavy metal music or country music you probably won’t see a lot of black people,” added Dr. Semmes. “If you have hip-hop or R&B, which has white fans as well, they don’t want to replace a young white demographic with a black demographic.”

Dr. Semmes went on to mention that sociological studies from the 1960s and 70s pointed to problems with how blacks where perceived by whites.

“In every case, black men were seen as more aggressive,” said Dr. Semmes of the studies where whites compared blacks--acting in the exact same manner as their white counterparts. “It only takes 30 percent of an audience for whites to perceive that blacks are in the majority.”

Dr. Semmes said that in “geographical context” dress codes were an issue of “dealing with corporations regulating markets in prime commercial real estate,” and were rare in “areas that are not prime commercial space.”

Andrea Shelby-Bartee, owner and manger of BodyWorks Phase II nightclub at 84th and Troost said her establishment has used a dress code for years in order to “create a clean, safe atmosphere for everyone to have a good time.”

Bartee added that her establishment was targeting to be “an upscale type of venue” but didn’t feel the dress code discriminated against anyone because of race or ethnicity.

Dr. Semmes said studies showed dress was not an accurate or significant predictor of behavior and that even if the particular problem with dress is corrected the “person is usually still denied entry.”

“There is so much variation and ambiguity that no one has found a correlation,” added Semmes. “That is why (dress codes) bring up so much concern.”

Mickey Dean, manager of the Civil Rights Division of the Human Relations Department of the City of KCMO said it seemed “kinda clear to me who the dress code was aimed at” after a group of young men he was mentoring was denied entry to the P&L.

Dean said it was a complaint from a middle-age professional African American man who helped bring the problem to the city’s attention. His office then conducted testing with male subjects—two caucasians, two Hispanics and two African Americans in September of 2009.  They discovered the white males were let in wearing “long shorts and long shirts” while some of the Black and Hispanic males—in similar clothing were turned away.

According to the results of the November 2009 report, “Based on the test results two conclusions can be drawn.  KC Live employees do not consistently admit patrons based upon the adopted dress code policy. The second conclusion is that the KC Live employees are denying entry to some patrons based on articles of clothing whose prohibition is in violation of the city’s dress code ordinance.”

“Overall, KC Live employees, who were employed at both entrances, allowed the Caucasians to enter 6 times out of 6 visits (100%) and the males of color were allowed to enter 9 times out of 16 visits (56%). The reasons given to the Blacks and Hispanics for denying entry included: shirt too long, sleeves too long, shorts too baggy, shirt too baggy or shorts too long.”

According to Dean, one complaint against Power and Light has resulted in a monetary settlement while another person has hired an attorney to pursue legal action. Dean also said the Power and Light has instituted many changes to the dress code including making it uniform from place to place, simplifying it and installing video cameras to help confirm possible cases of discrimination.

Doug Bonney, Chief Counsel and Legal Director for the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri, said that establishments needed to be held accountable when “a dress code is a proxy for racial discrimination” because it violates several federal, state and local laws.

Bonney said it was clear through anecdotal evidence and “close to overt statements” about “the real reasons dress codes are used.”

“Your not going to have a smoking gun, like a ‘no Negros’ sign in 1963,” added Bonney, who suggested the city adopt guidelines in the Tax Increment Financing Formula (TIFF) which demands there can be no negative dress codes only positive dress codes.

When the discussion was opened up to the audience, Brandon Ellington, said that he was almost denied entry to Power and Light because was sporting dreadlocks and wanted the panel to address the root cause of the problem “racial discrimination”.

“The true issue is that a publically funded project, TIFF, is using my money to discriminate against me,” said Ellington.

Councilman John Sharp said the city “knew the history of Cordish” and that it wasn’t there “first rodeo” referring to the Power and Light developers’ similar problems in other cities.

“Their P.R. firm is here tonight,” added Sharp, who said his bi-racial son and his friends won’t go down to P&L because “they don’t want to be embarrassed.”

“Things are better but they are still not right,” said Sharp.

Sharp lashed out at the media saying “the community doesn’t appreciate the media painting our young people as hoodlums. Stop demonizing our kids for ratings!”

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