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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Light Snow Fog/Mist
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African Americans not allowed? Madison bars go too far in keeping out a 'bad element' (updated)
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Here's a depressing stat: In Madison, half of African Americans don't graduate from high school. Here's a curious stat: In Wisconsin, half of African Americans don't have driver's licenses. How do these two figures relate?

The first partially explains many of the problems facing Madison's black community, including poverty, crime and substance abuse. The second is what many Madison bars appear to be using to try to keep these problems out of their establishments.

Don't have a driver's license? Then you can't come in. The rationale, according to some bar owners, is that by restricting access to those with driver's licenses (and excluding those with state ID cards), the bar is less likely to admit a certain "bad element," a term that is repeated ad nauseam in any conversation with bar owners who have implemented the policy. Some, including me, have interpreted "bad element" to mean "black element."

I had an unpleasant experience nearly three months ago at the college bar Logan's Madtown. Approaching the door with friends, I noticed a sign: "UW Student & Alumni Night." Sensing that my old student ID might get me a discounted drink, I asked the bouncer what it was about. "You don't need to worry about that," he replied.

The bouncer told one of my friends that the "UW party" was there to protect her and keep out troublemakers. Offended by what she perceived as a racial undertone, she suggested we leave. But I gave the bouncer another chance to explain. "We've had some problems with some African Americans," he said. "We thought it'd be easier to just say this was a private party."

Even after the bouncer assured me the "private party" scheme was meant to keep out troublemakers of all races, we decided to leave. For a few minutes we watched people waiting in line to get into the bar. We saw two young black men present their IDs, only to be informed that a state ID was not sufficient for entry.

When I contacted Adam Mais, the general manager of Logan's, he strongly emphasized that the bar had no intention of excluding anybody.

"We ran the alumni event night to welcome back students from the summer... there were student food and drink specials and back-to-school-themed music," he said. "We do not and would never discriminate against anybody."

Disgusted, I sent off a couple angry Twitter messages, denouncing what seemed to me like a tavern literacy test. A friend of mine, who is very active in city politics, told me that Logan's had probably implemented the policy in response to a number of fights in the bar. It's hard to blame the business, he suggested, since it is trying to make sure the city doesn't revoke its liquor license.

Still, something didn't seem right. Whatever the intent, such policies can have a devastating effect on community morale. It reflects poorly on Madison -- a city that prides itself on inclusiveness -- that merchants believe there is an entire sector of our population that can't be trusted.

The dress codes some bars have put in place also cast a shadow over Madison's pretension of racial harmony. White T-Shirts, "overly baggy clothes," long T-shirts, hats that are cocked to the side and bandannas are some of the common wardrobe restrictions imposed by many bars, including Wando's, Whiskey Jack's, Logan's and Monday's.

"What would you do if you saw 12 guys in white T-shirts jump your staff?" asks Jay Wando, the owner of Wando's, which sent several bouncers to the hospital after a nasty altercation with customers this summer. "All summer long there's been an increase in batteries, people hanging out on the sidewalk dealing drugs...the dress code we have is there for the safety of our staff and customers."

In fact, Wando says he imposes his dress code so stringently that he turned down an off-duty police officer wearing a white T-shirt.

"I have no problem with dress codes as long as they are enforced uniformly," says Ald. Mike Verveer. Verveer sits on the Alcohol License Review Committee, which has been looking into the issue of discrimination in city bars.

Hawk Sullivan, the owner of Hawk's Bar & Grill on State Street, has mixed feelings about instituting policies that would keep out certain patrons. "I hope I wouldn't, but when your business is your livelihood sometimes you make decisions you otherwise wouldn't," he says. Sullivan attributes the safety of his bar to his low tolerance for horseplay and willingness to call the cops when conflicts arise.

What to make of this mess? I'm afraid I can't offer a particularly strong conclusion.

I suppose if a bar owner wants to require that all of his patrons wear turquoise polos or Bears jerseys, the law can't and shouldn't forbid him to do that.

What the city needs to do is make sure that bars are enforcing their policies fairly, which experience indicates isn't always the case. In fact, former Ald. Brenda Konkel recently posted an account of a student who claims he witnessed Logan's demanding student IDs from black customers but not white ones.

It's also up to individuals to pressure bars to adopt more tolerant practices. It's up to you to distinguish between policies that bars put in place to keep their place classy (collared shirts, for instance) and those that seem to needlessly pick winners and losers based on subcultures. Why is a white T-shirt worse than an acid-washed Toby Keith jean jacket?

Madison is not and should not be like New York, where beefy bouncers discriminate against the ugly and the poorly dressed. More importantly, we shouldn't act like the French, who have determined that one's right to wear certain types of headgear is a threat to public safety.

Just as the solution to heated political arguments is not to bar Republicans (or crew cuts), the solution to gang violence should not be to ban sideways hats.


Note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Adam Mais, the general manager of Logan's Madtown, elected to comment on the record.


Jack Craver blogs about politics as The Sconz on TheDailyPage.com.

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