Racial discrimination disguised as dress code?

Allegations of sneakers-based discrimination appear to have been an issue at El Centro for years, according to reviews on Yelp.
Allegations of sneakers-based discrimination appear to have been an issue at El Centro for years, according to reviews on Yelp. PHOTO: GOOGLE MAPS

WASHINGTON • Ms Yesha Callahan was waiting for her friend, Mr Brian Gordon, to join her at the popular Washington restaurant El Centro D.F.

It was the Saturday before Christmas, another friend of hers was tending bar and it was about 10.30 at night, the point in the evening when the restaurant gives way to a nightclub and the music is turned up.

Only a handful of people were there. There was no one in line.

But Mr Gordon was denied entry, he says he was told because he was wearing sneakers, which the restaurant's dress code prohibits.

His shoes were leather Converse high tops.

"They're not like ratty, dirty sneakers," he said. "They're brand new, they're leather. They were clean, fresh, white. It's not like I showed up in five-year-old Chucks."

Downstairs, Ms Callahan's group of friends got a text from Mr Gordon, who is black, telling them he was turned away because of his shoes.

Ms Callahan looked over at the bar as a group of white men walked in and noticed what they were wearing. "They all have sneakers on," she said. "One guy had the same sneakers style that (Gordon) had."

Mr Gordon said that he does not take issue with the concept of a no-sneakers policy, "but if it's not being applied universally, then it's a problem".

Besides, Ms Callahan said, El Centro is a relatively casual spot.

"If I'm going to a taco joint, why does it matter if I have sneakers on or not?" she said.

The policy was being used to discriminate against people of colour, she alleged in a widely shared story about the experience she wrote for the Root, where she is the deputy managing editor.

In response, Mr Ayyaz Rashid, managing partner of the Sandoval Restaurant Group, removed the sneaker policy on Tuesday and fired the bouncer who interacted with Mr Gordon.

Mr Rashid said that celebrity chef Richard Sandoval, who was travelling, was made aware of the situation and has "zero tolerance for anything discriminatory".

And this week, "we are making sure that in all our venues, we are doing extra training to discuss this issue, to make sure (staff) understand what is right, what is not right".

Allegations of sneakers-based discrimination appear to have been an issue at El Centro for years, according to reviews on Yelp.

"My husband was not allowed in because he was wearing sneakers," said a review from 2015.

"While I respect an establishment's dress code, what I could not understand was why the next white male in line wearing sneakers (and several others) was allowed to enter the restaurant."

Mr Rashid said the dress code policy was "no different than any D.C., L.A. or New York lounge", and that when guests saw other guests who were not dressed according to the code, it was usually because the underdressed guests were dining in the restaurant, which has no dress code and stuck around for the nightclub portion of the night, when the dress code is instituted.

He said he had fired bouncers in the past for not following restaurant policies, including the application of the dress code.

"I am a person of colour myself," he said. "So to hear that I would be enforcing such policies, it's pretty personal to me."

El Centro is far from the first restaurant to be accused of using a dress code to deny entry to people of colour.

In 2015, the Justice Department intervened after a black man complained to the Dallas City Council that he was turned away from Kung Fu Saloon for wearing Converse sneakers while his white friend, who was wearing the same sneakers, was allowed in.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2017, with the headline 'Racial discrimination disguised as dress code?'. Print Edition | Subscribe