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Iowa City wants to address possible discriminatory use of dress codes at bars and restaurants


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The Iowa City Office of Equity and Human Rights reissued a three-year-old memorandum providing guidance on “Dress code, admittance policies and public accommodations” on Thursday.

“We originally put the memo out [in 2016] because we would hear concerns about places of public accommodation using the dress code as a pretext to discriminate,” Iowa City Equity Director Stefanie Bowers told Little Village. “More recently, in the last three weeks or so, this may be increasing and becoming more common.”

Bowers said that in 2016, the city worked with the University of Iowa and the Iowa City Downtown District to educate the owners and managers of businesses that have dress codes, such as bars and restaurants, about how dress codes and their enforcement can potentially violate Iowa City’s Human Rights Ordinance.

The ordinance, which prohibits discrimination based on “Age, color, creed, disability, gender identity, marital status, national origin, race, religion, sex or sexual orientation,” applies to all places that admit the general public.

“Discriminatory conduct includes denying admittance, using different terms of admittance, harassment or differential treatment and advertising. There are limited exceptions based on religion, age or disability,” the memo explains.

Complaints that bars and restaurants use dress codes as a pretext to engage in discriminatory practices against blacks and Latinos are common across the country. Texas A&M University Sociology Professor Reuben A. Buford May, who has researched dress codes and racial discrimination, discussed the topic in a 2018 essay for The Conversation.

Some say the dress codes themselves are discriminatory because they ban clothing worn by minorities. Owners reject this argument, saying that patrons can simply change their clothes. Other patrons argue that bouncers use dress codes to deny them access, while granting access to white patrons who are wearing the same type of clothing.

In a noteworthy example of differential treatment from 2009, an African-American patron was rejected from a nightclub in Chicago on the grounds that his pants were too baggy. He and his white friend exchanged baggy jeans. They wanted to see if the bouncers would let the white friend in wearing the same jeans.

They did.

In 2017, May published the results of his own research on dress codes in the peer-reviewed journal, Sociology of Race and Ethnicity. That study found that black men were twice as likely to be denied admittance at nightclubs in Houston and Dallas than white men who were dressed the same.

“Whether this rejection was based on implicit bias or intentional discrimination in violation of civil rights laws, our research suggests that African-American men are subjected to unfair scrutiny and treatment at nightclubs,” May wrote for The Conversation.

Bowers said that in addition to republishing the 2016 memo online, her office has sent printed copies to Iowa City businesses with dress codes. The city will also put information about how dress codes can violate city ordinances on social media, according to Bowers.

But it’s not just businesses the city wants to reach. It’s also the public.

“A lot of people may not realize it’s against the law to use dress codes to exclude people in a discriminatory manner,” Bowers said. “They may be unhappy and think the business has poor customer service, but not realize what happened was a violation of the law.”

“We want to make sure anyone who thinks they’ve been discriminated against in this way reports it to the city,” she said. “It’s something we want to handle, we want our community to be welcoming and to abide by the laws that are on the books.”

Bowers said anyone wanting more information on unlawful discrimination in places of public accommodation, or wanting to file a complaint should call the Office of Equity and Human Rights at 319-356-5022 or send an email to humanrights@iowa-city.org.


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