General Question

gorillapaws's avatar

Would it be legal to open a restaraunt that practiced voluntary racial segregation?

Asked by gorillapaws (16012 points ) June 29th, 2012

I’m wondering if someone wanted to open a restaraunt in the US that allowed people to experience what racial segregation was like in the south, if this would be possible. I was thinking you could have one dining room where it was a historically faithful recreation of what a southern restaraunt might have been like at the time, with separate utincils, etc. Then there could be a separate dining room where the races would be reversed, and white people (as it would have been defined back then) would be treated as the “colored” people were at the time. Finally there would be a normal dining room for people who just want to eat food and not experience the historical portrayal of racial segregation.

By having the options, would that be sufficient for a restaraunt to not run afoul of desegregation laws? Do you think such a restaraunt would be able to bring history to life, to help people understand the nature of racism as it existed at the time. Or is the whole concept so offensive that it amounts to nothing more than pouring salt in wounds that are mostly healed?

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60 Answers

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

That’s a really interesting idea. I’m sure you’ll catch all kind of crap from everyone, but I’d try it just to see how it felt to be discriminated against because of my race. I think it would be a good learning experience. Now I’ll run for a corner and hide.

pcmonkey's avatar

Hmm, this question is not what I expected. Thats a really cool idea. And yes, of course it legal to open this business. It’s free enterprise! And I love the fact that there is a section for people who just want to have a meal rather than do all of the historical things. I think as long as you’re not hurting any costumers physically or being unfair towards ANYONE, than its fine and a great idea.

marinelife's avatar

No, it would not be legal.

pcmonkey's avatar

@marinelife He wouldn’t be showing real racism towards anyone. Its like opening up an interactive museum on civil rights. But its better, because you get a meal. I don’t understand why think this is not legal.

SavoirFaire's avatar

Yes, this would be legal. Voluntary segregation is, by both US law and UN resolution, not discrimination. While the US Congress used the Commerce Clause to forbid restaurants from refusing to serve particular races, it cannot stop people from voluntarily deciding to sit in different rooms—particularly as the “segregation” in a case like this is not discriminatory.

JLeslie's avatar

I don’t think it would be legal to actually segregate the people. You could probably have the different decor and flatware etc, but to actually ban a race from a particular part of the restaurant I think you run into trouble. There are laws against prohibiting a person from being served in an establishment open to the public, and I assume segregation is also outlawed in public places.

Maybe there is some sort of exception that could be had? But, I doubt it. I am not a lawyer, so I don’t know the specific laws that control such matters.

You can have the two areas in the restaurant, and just not forbid a race from going there, let them choose where they want to sit. “White people” can experience the “black” side, and for that matter young black people can experience what happened to their ancestors.

LuckyGuy's avatar

How about if you had a “Wheel of discrimination” ? . The customers would not know which group they would be in until they spin the wheel. Everyone can spin and an unlucky 10% would have to sit in the “other room”.

Blackberry's avatar

Cool idea, but society isn’t ready for that, in general. It wouldn’t be illegal, though.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

@marinelife and @JLeslie Why would this be illegal? Do you know of any laws that would deny this type of establishment?

bkcunningham's avatar

Have you ever been to Historic Williamsburg, Va.? The taverns aren’t segregated in the manner you are describing, but people still role play as if it were that time period. There are many places similar to that.

JLeslie's avatar

@bkcunningham Williamsburg is fantastic.

@Pied_Pfeffer As I mentioned there are laws that private establishments open to the public cannot discriminate. I assume they cannot segregate either. I’ll try to do a search for the specific laws.

@gorillapaws I was thinking also that as a white person myself, I separate the segregated south as being completely different white people than my people. My parents have never seen a sign in real life that said colored people only or whites only. They were raised in NYC, it didn’t exist. Was there some racial tensions or ethnic tensions? Sure, but not blatant segregation. When I learn about the southern segregation it is like I cannot believe that happened in my country it is such a foreign mindset to me. Plus, what if an Asian or Hispanic person comes to your door? So, as a history lesson of the difference experiences white and black people had in the south, I think all races would be interested in the experience, and there is no need to actually segregate.

gorillapaws's avatar

@bkcunningham I actually have been there and experienced a meal in a historical tavern. It’s a neat experience.

I pictured a place where a black grandmother could go with her granddaughter and say to her “this is what it was like for me growing up.” I think it could be a powerful and moving experience that might bring a sense of recognition and understanding between generations. Or perhaps as @Blackberry has said, this isn’t the right time in American history yet.

Anyways, I’m not actually planning on making this place, just doing a thought experiment.

JLeslie's avatar

@Pied_Pfeffer Actually, I think the Civil Rights act of 1964 probably covers it. Why do you think it might be legal?

bkcunningham's avatar

I like your thoughts, @gorillapaws. The concept reminded me of the Titanic experience some of my family and friends have told me about in Gatlinburg, Tenn., where you are given a passenger number when you enter the museum. You find out about the passenger. As you exit, you find out if you survived.

mattbrowne's avatar

It wouldn’t be legal in Germany as soon as enforcement comes into play. Suppose for a few weeks all the visitors “play by the rules” voluntarily. Nullum ius sine actione, i.e. no complaint, no redress. Now for the first time one black person enters the white room. He would have a right to stay in the room. If someone in the room wants him leave, then the law gets broken.

JLeslie's avatar

@bkcunningham Have you been to the Holocaust museum in DC? It has that sort of premise also. When you first enter you are given papers, kind of like a passport, of who you are.

bkcunningham's avatar

No, I haven’t been, @JLeslie. I thought of that after my last post. I hear it is a powerful experience. I know a few Holocaust survivors. Their stories are engraved in my heart.

marinelife's avatar

@pcmonkey Because segregation, for any purpose, isn’t legal.

marinelife's avatar

“The Jim Crow laws were state and local laws in the United States enacted between 1876 and 1965. They mandated de jure racial segregation in all public facilities in Southern states of the former Confederacy, with, starting in 1890, a “separate but equal” status for black Americans.

State-sponsored school segregation was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education. Generally, the remaining Jim Crow laws were overruled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964[1] and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

Wikipedia

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

@JLeslie Two sections of the restaurant are set aside for role-playing. A third is designated for people who have no interest in participating and just want a meal. Customers would have a choice, thus not breaking any law.

The OP states, _ I was thinking you could have one dining room where it was a historically faithful recreation of what a southern restaraunt might have been like at the time, with separate utincils, etc. Then there could be a separate dining room where the races would be reversed, and white people (as it would have been defined back then) would be treated as the “colored” people were at the time._

Role-playing is not illegal in the US. Disney has been sued on more than one occasion for discrimination on many matters. Yet they win the court cases because they play the “our employees are actors” card. If Snow White shows up in a costume with tattoos all over her arms, or Jasmine is pale-skinned or Prince Charming is obviously female, then it causes problems for the audience. Disney’s stance is that their employees are actors, and if not true to the characters portrayed, they are ineffective in their goal of creating an experience.

mattbrowne's avatar

By the way, there’s already legal voluntary segregation in the US. Just look at many of the Protestant churches. Within the same church (same denomination) in one city churchgoers voluntarily go into a white or black church. There’s also legal voluntary segregation of neighborhoods. People choose to live in a black or white neighborhood.

JLeslie's avatar

@Pied_Pfeffer But, this is actually forbidding a customer entrance into an area. The Disney argument is about a character image and how it affects their business. It has to do with hiring practices and not patrons having access.

For instance if a company will not hire overwieght salespeople, and they can argue it negatively impacts their business when they do, they have a shot at winning the case. But, your example is interesting. When I extend my example to race, let’s say the white customers are horribly racist and it will impact a business if they hire black salespeople? Probably people would not get on board with that one.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@marinelife You are conflating segregation and discrimination. De jure segregation is discriminatory, and therefore illegal; voluntary and/or de facto segregation is not. Moreover, there is an important difference—legally speaking—between state-sponsored segregation and private segregation. A restaurant like this would break no laws as it would not refuse service to anyone. It simply offers an optional seating placement (like restaurants with smoking and non-smoking sections or special rooms for private parties). As long as the “segregation experience” is offered as a special event service, there would be no opportunity to sue.

It is important to remember that the OP discusses a three room restaurant. One of those rooms is an entirely conventional, racially-mixed dining area. Treating this as the normal restaurant and the other two rooms as the special event section gets around the various legal concerns people have. One worry might be that actual racists would take advantage of the segregation experience to avoid other races, but this is more of a social/practical concern than a legal one. Moreover, it could be disincentivized by adding programmatic elements to the experience that actual racists would find distasteful.

gorillapaws's avatar

@SavoirFaire do you think it would be a good idea? Would it open people’s eyes to history, bring about understanding between generations? or would it be too painful and create too much anger to outweigh any possible benefits?

SavoirFaire's avatar

@gorillapaws I think it would need to be very carefully done. It could not be located just anywhere, but might work very well in locations particularly important to the civil rights movement. It would require community involvement during the restaurant’s establishment to avoid negative perceptions. Were all that to be handled properly, however, I think that it could be very educational. There are a lot of details to work out, but the idea is quite interesting in its own right.

JLeslie's avatar

@gorillapaws You didn’t ask me, but I have grappled with similar questions. There was a case in TX where some school board was arguing they should not teach history of black people being enslaved and segregated, because it negatively affects the children, especially black children. I am not sure what grade they were talking about. I do wonder if we should wait until later years to teach these things. I did a Q on it, most people disagreed with me. I just know as a Jewish girl I am glad it didn’t really hit home with me what happened in the holocaust until I was in Jr. high. At younger ages my family mentioned things, but I did not really study it until later, and that did not even happen in my country.

Your idea would kind of be like a museum.

Judi's avatar

If you forbid a person to sit in any section based soley on their race it is a violation of civil rights law regardless of your motives.
I like the idea of letting people sit where they want, but treating the people in the different sections the same as someone in that section might have been treated pre civil rights. (ie if they’re in the black dsection, that’s the way they’re treated, and if they’re in the white section, they are treated like whites of the period were treated regardless of their actual race. )

bkcunningham's avatar

I don’t think there was that much difference in how people were treated once they were seated, @Judi. It was being forced to sit “with your kind.” The bus is going to the same place with the same driver. You just can’t sit up front beside of me.

gorillapaws's avatar

@bkcunningham I’m pretty sure people in the color section were always served last. I think there were other racist behaviors too.

bkcunningham's avatar

Not every eatery or whatnot had a black section, @gorillapaws. I’m curious what other racist behavior you mean, @gorillapaws.

JLeslie's avatar

@bkcunningham Well, with the buses the problem was if a white person did not have a seat available, a black person was expected to give theirs up even in the “black” section. That is the Rosa Parks story I am pretty sure. Things were never really equal when separate. I also have heard in restaurants black people were served last, and that when served the wait staff had an attitude of not seeming happy to serve them, so the whole thing might be quite unpleasant in the end. But, I don’t know how accurate that last part is? To be honest I have never thought about how there might be a black section of a restaurant, I think more in terms of black people not being allowed into an establishment. Even in white restaurants I would think maybe some of the servers were black? I could be totally wrong, I am not sure.

I had a guy this past Tuesday start talking to me at the pool, and some how we started talking about restaurants, and then he went on a tangent on how terrible people tip, especially the blacks. This guy doesn’t know me from Adam. I could be married to a black guy. This shit happens to me all the time down here. Oh, and O’Charleys used to let kids eat free, but the blacks brought their tons of children and they stopped offering it. But, I digress, we are talking about the old south. The only reason I bring it up is because if during segregation there was an assumption black people did not tip as well, I guess wait staff would be less eager to give good service. But, I also get that is a vicious circle, seeing that bad service would not get tipped well. By the way this man I was speaking to went on to say when his father first died he realized his mom was not tipping, his father had always handled those things, and she had no idea she was supposed to.

bkcunningham's avatar

Yes, of course some of the servers were Black. Blacks even owned restaurants.

You seem to attract some strange people, @JLeslie. lol

JLeslie's avatar

@bkcunningham I realize there were black business owners, I doubt they had a separate section for whites and blacks, and if they did, I assume they treated their black customers well.

I was speaking about establishments owned by white people, and maybe if a black person got lucky they had a section for them. Since southerners were accustomed to black servants, maybe they also employed black waiters?

bkcunningham's avatar

If you don’t treat your customers nicely, they don’t come back, right?

gorillapaws's avatar

What inspired this idea was a clip from the documentary excerpt on this page. She mentions restaurants at about 2:35 into the clip. After seeing it, I realized I new very little about what that world must have actually been like. I understood intellectually what happened back then, but hearing that woman describe what it was like to live it was powerful to me.

JLeslie's avatar

@gorillapaws Interestingly, I have been to several museums now here in Memphis that talk about the times of segregation. I realized in school I only had real details of slavery, but not a real idea of segregation Not the extent of it and what it was like.

bkcunningham's avatar

It is powerful, @gorillapaws. Have you heard the Slave Narratives? It was a writers project through the federal government where people actually interviewed, photographed and recorded former slaves. Talk about some powerful stories. You can hear their voices. It is enlightening, educational and very moving.

gorillapaws's avatar

@bkcunningham I think I had heard of them but never checked them out. I’ll have to do that.

It’s easy to forget that there are many people still alive who lived through this. Sometimes I wonder what goes through the minds of older black folks, when I (a young white man) open the door for them, call them sir/ma’am or show other signs of politeness, courtesy and respect (I live in Richmond, VA, the former capital of the Confederate south). I like to think it makes them happy—like Dr. King’s dream is slowly becoming a reality. Simple gestures like that will never undo the wrongs of the past of course, but I like to think they can provide some hope for a day when racial inequalities are nonexistent.

athenasgriffin's avatar

Jones v. Mayer. is a supreme court case that upholds the idea that congress can regulate the private sale of things to benefit racial equality. This would be illegal. However, it is a very interesting idea, kind of a psychological tutorial on the effects of racism.

tinyfaery's avatar

Not in California.

augustlan's avatar

[mod says] This is our Question of the Day!

Linda_Owl's avatar

According to Rand Paul, it SHOULD be legal.

woodcutter's avatar

All they would need to do is have a totally quiet section and that would do the trick.

Judi's avatar

I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s. There was a book called Black Like Me. It was a true story about a white man who wanted to understand what it was really like for blacks in the south so he shaved his head, and worked with a doctor to pigmint his skin.
I found the book fascinating in 5th or 6th grade.
I know there was an uproar in the black community because this man came and earned their trust while deceiving them. Still, it helped me see some of the things I took for granted that I only had because I was born with fair skin.

give_seek's avatar

When it comes to eating places and segregation, African Americans were most often refused service. There wasn’t so much relegation to a corner or the unkempt part of the cafe where you got the bad china and the rusty forks and spit in your food. There were signs on the windows that said NO COLOREDS ALLOWED. So, you simply went someplace else to eat.

bewailknot's avatar

All this debate about if it would be legal. There are restaurants today in the U.S. that have designated sections for white and black. If you are white and the white section is full you don’t dare sit in the black section or you will be considered a troublemaker and asked to leave. This happened to my friend traveling in South Carolina. There were no signs designating the sections, but the locals knew what was what, and the hostess wouldn’t seat you in the “wrong” section.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@athenasgriffin Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co. does not make this restaurant illegal for three reasons. First, it says what Congress can do, not what it must do. Second, it is limited to discrimination, but US law does not recognize all segregation as discriminatory (see above). Third, the existence of a restaurant allowing the option of experiencing what pre-civil rights discrimination was like is not to the detriment of racial equality. Educating someone about history is not one of “the badges and incidents of slavery,” and so the decision you cite does not empower Congress to prohibit it.

lillycoyote's avatar

I believe that if you ran the restaurant as a “private club” as a opposed to a “public accommodation”, it would be legal.. Not a lawyer though, and not an expert on constitutional law and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I think an attorney is probably going to have the correct answer.

bkcunningham's avatar

Hi @lillycoyote. It is a really interesting concept, don’t you think?

JLeslie's avatar

@bewailknot Seriously?

@lillycoyote That’s an interesting take on it. When I lived in NC there was some sort of law saying nightclubs that did not serve food required a patron be a member to gain entry. My percenption was it was a leftover from wanting to keep certain people out. Most clubs in Raleigh it was only a $5 or $10 charge per year to be a member, so it was not some crazy high fee, it was just a little bit of money to comply with the law. A horrific law in my opinion, which just reinfirced to me I was in the formerly segregated south. I don’t understand how southerners don’t see these things, and let it continue. Don’t understand how others perceive them. They do understand in the sense that they get really really pissed if you accuse them of being racist (and to be clear I think the overwhelming majority of people are not racist) but then all sorts of things go on in the south that appear so racist. Still.

bkcunningham's avatar

@JLeslie, most states do that. It is a way around alcohol laws that require food sales with percentage of alcohol sold. It has nothing to do with the South or racism. It happens everywhere because of government control and businesses trying to get around the regulations.

LostInParadise's avatar

Maybe you could do a simulated discrimination. The restaurant would hand out red and blue paper hats. Instead of discriminating by race, you could discriminate by hat color. There are two ways of doing this, either have people choose hat color or do the selection at random. It might be interesting to see how people react.

JLeslie's avatar

@bkcunningham Most states? No other state I have lived in. What other states have you experienced such a thing? I don’t even know how to google it to find info on something like that. Maybe you can think of a way?

bkcunningham's avatar

Rhode Island, New Hampshire, New York, Maryland to name a few off the top of my head, @JLeslie.

JLeslie's avatar

@bkcunningham MD? I guess I always went to clubs in DC. In DC we definitely did not pay a membership charge. I don’t remember it in NY either. We may have paid a cover charge, but not a membership.

@bewailknot What does that mean?

JLeslie's avatar

Here is an example of the required membership by law for a club in NC. Do you have an example of that in these other states?

bkcunningham's avatar

EDIT: I had a response and then I realized that I completely misunderstood your statement about NC. I thought you were just referring to private clubs.

JLeslie's avatar

@bkcunningham I see, yeah a miscommunication. These were danceclub/bar type of establishments. If you are in Raleigh a week on vacation and want to go dancing one night, you have to become a member of the bar basically. NC law makes all places like that a private club. I don’t know how old the law is so I don’t really know the original intent of the law. At this point it can bring in some extra revenue for a club, so the businesses might like the law on the books no matter what the original intent was.

bkcunningham's avatar

I tried to find information about that legislation and didn’t have any luck. I lived outside of Fayetteville, NC, for two years (about four years ago) and I don’t remember having to have membership to go into a bar. I’d love to know the statute in the state code that applies to that information in your post, @JLeslie. I was disappointed that they posted the code for not smoking indoors and not the code for the membership. I’m still looking though. It is very strange.

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