An American Story

On a long bicycle ride just after dawn today, the friend with whom I was riding told me a timely and compelling story.

We live in a prosperous suburb of New York. One of the communitarian things my friend does there is help moderate a Facebook group on which the town’s parents share their thoughts about local matters. Recently, the group went crazy over a video that may have shown racist behavior by a local restaurant and/or the police.

The video, my friend explained, showed a fracas between three young African-Americans and a policeman (or perhaps it was two policemen) on the street just outside the restaurant. Evidently, the young people had had some sort of argument with the restaurant and somebody had called the cops. After moments of high tension, the young people left, insisting loudly and angrily that they had been treated in a racist manner by all concerned.

The (overwhelmingly white) Facebook group exploded with rage about the incident. They discussed leading a boycott of the restaurant and, in my friend’s delightful description, spent some time pulling out pitchforks and lighting torches. Then the restaurant released its statement about what had happened.

Their story was that the three young people had been seated for outdoor dining and began to order drinks. One was obviously too young to buy alcohol. The second produced a valid ID and was served; the third ordered two drinks but when she was carded she produced an out-of state ID which, on the first try, was rejected by the restaurant’s scanner.

When her ID was scanned a second time, so the story goes, it went through, but when the server asked what the zip code was for the home address on her ID, she twice gave wrong answers. The server then refused – or hesitated, my friend wasn’t explicit – to serve her the two drinks she had ordered.

At this point the young people got angry, made a fuss and stormed off, but one forgot her pocketbook. The restaurant’s manager decided that nobody should touch it, so he called the police and asked them to come get it. When, later, the young people returned for the purse they were told they would have to get it from the cops. The result was the fractious scene captured on the video. The young people left with the purse, cursing out one and all.

The restaurant’s side of the story forestalled any concerted effort on the part of my friend’s Facebook group to take action against it.

***

We talked about those events after my friend had finished giving the rundown summarized above. In the abstract, the story is a Rorschach test of attitudes about race and racism; in fact, what really happened can only be known by the participants, and in an important sense, maybe not even by them.

The video made the story look simple: a restaurant in a largely white town treats young African-Americans badly, backed up by the police. The systemic racism (and classism, I’d guess) of a broken and exclusionary system as practiced by Commerce and the Authorities.

The restaurant’s telling makes it all look very different: three young people want to drink – at least one apparently illegally (I refer to the third simultaneously ordered drink). The server exercises his or her legal responsibility to check their ages and finds discrepancies that might mean serious trouble for the restaurant, and refuses service to the patron who claimed to be of legal drinking age. The young people leave in anger. The manager wants no part in an already racially tinged situation and tries to offload responsibility for the purse onto the police. Everybody gets falsely accused of racism, with terrible online publicity for the restaurant and police.

***

Perhaps the restaurant’s employees would have been less suspicious and/or more welcoming if the young people hadn’t been black; perhaps the young people were trying to get away with underage drinking (or even, God forbid, to create a scene) and made unjustifiable accusations of racism when they were called out. Likely the restaurant’s manager over-reacted in asking the police to come get the purse – but again, we can’t know just how fraught the situation looked to him.

We can only guess about whether the young people would have been treated differently, or would have reacted differently to the server’s and the manager’s decisions, if they had been white.

It’s entirely possible – indeed quite likely in my view – that both sides wholly believe their stories. Assumptions about racism can form self-fulfilling prophecies.

As my mother used to say: “If you go looking for trouble, you’re going to find it.”

M.H. Johnston

6 comments to An American Story

  • Dennis Paine  says:

    Mark, Please consider the possibility that the group of three who left might have returned with family members or friends carrying weapons. This has happened in other locales and may have informed the manager’s decision to call the police.

    As I once heard my father say: “You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”

  • Vivian Wadlin  says:

    My biggest worry with the police in sticky situations is that they will stop responding at all. Then we are left to our own devices and that means people protecting their own with guns with little real knowledge of firearms. Nothing like vigilantes to start a shooting race war. The only winners in that scenario are those who seek an authoritarian leader.

  • Anonymous  says:

    Here is my suggestion: when a crime is being committed then call the police, otherwise just deal with it. Cops escalate everything.

  • Anonymous  says:

    Ok, here’s my second suggestion. Since all problems ultimately are the responsibility of management, the rule of the day should have been to let the manager handle the id issue by offering the table one hard and two soft drinks, the latter free of charge. No big deal. Calm down people.

  • Anonymous  says:

    Restorative justice is better than mass criminalization.

    • Anonymous  says:

      The three patrons lacked the good manners to handle rejection. Angry responses make them look bad, but the race trump card is theirs to play. Who is the racist? Not enough of us handle humility backed by courage. Pride backed by frustration escalates to violence. When we form superficial opinions based on a preconceived
      idea were once called ‘predudice’ and could be erased with empathy and understanding. Now we go straight to
      ‘racism’ – never erased only manipulated.

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