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Chicago Club Accused Of Racism Over Dress Code

The Original Mother's was made famous in the 1986 movie About Last Night, starring Rob Lowe, Demi Moore and Jim Belushi. (NPR)

Six college students from St. Louis accuse a popular Chicago nightclub of using a dress code banning baggy pants to racially profile them, denying them entrance to the club on a recent Saturday night.

The African-American students were part of a group of nearly 200 students from Washington University who were in Chicago on a fall break senior class trip the weekend of Oct. 16. They had prearranged for an outing at The Original Mother's, a popular Division Street singles bar made famous in the 1986 movie About Last Night, starring Rob Lowe, Demi Moore and Jim Belushi.

Regis Murayi, student council treasurer and one of the organizers of the trip, says the students prepaid $25 each for an all-you-can-drink special at Mother's on Oct. 17.

When Murayi and five other black students got to the club and tried to enter, he says, they were stopped by a bouncer at the door.

'Alarm Bells'

"He said that our jeans were too baggy, and they had a baggy-jeans policy at the establishment," said Murayi, adding that the bouncer told them "that we were in violation of that [policy] and we weren't going to be allowed in because of that."

Murayi says he tried pleading with the bouncer and a manager. Another student suggested that they all go back to their hotel and change, but Murayi says the manager told them they still wouldn't be allowed in.

"Alarm bells went off in my mind automatically," said Murayi, a double major in math and economics from Aberdeen, Md. He says he has been targeted by such dress codes before.

"A lot of times, baggy-jeans policies are used, in my opinion, to reject a certain demographic, mostly black men, from being allowed entry into certain places," Murayi said.

Murayi and other Washington University students say white members of the class who wore pants that were just as baggy were allowed into Mother's. In an experiment of sorts, he exchanged jeans with white student Jordan Roberts to see if Roberts could get in.

"Jordan's about 3 inches shorter than me and about 40 pounds lighter than me," Murayi said. "He said he felt like a clown; his pants were ridiculous, but he just walked up and was allowed in."

Similar Dress Codes

A representative of Mother's says the company is conducting an internal investigation and that it would issue a statement soon.

A human resources manager was quoted by the Chicago Tribune as saying the dress code is for security and is meant to keep gang members out. In addition to banning oversized or baggy clothing, it also bans athletic wear, jerseys and work boots.

It's not just Mother's. Most of the trendy singles bars and nightclubs in the popular Rush Street area have dress codes, including nearby McFadden's.

"Our dress code is nice pants, nice shirt, nice shoes, no ripped clothes, no baggy clothes, no hats," said Dennis Goff, head of security at McFadden's.

"This is downtown Chicago, this is not Ma and Pa's, you know what I mean? Everybody down here dresses the same, and that's it. No ghetto clothes — you come down, dress nice, have a good time and that's it."

Goff said he applies the policy equally to everyone.

"It's not just black — it's white, it's Mexican," he said. "It's everybody."

'Discriminatory Codes'

Not everybody agrees that nightclub dress codes are enforced so equally.

"I find that incidents like the one that occurred at Mother's really speak to a new set of discriminatory codes that are being administered or employed at certain places," said Herman Brewer, acting president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League, whose daughter happens to be a recent Washington University graduate.

He says policies like those at Mother's and increasingly at bars, clubs and restaurants all around the country are much more than dress codes.

"They are discriminatory codes. They are ways of profiling people based on their appearance that are not in any way representative of who those people are," Brewer said. "It's sad, but it reminds us that despite the progress that our nation has made [on race relations] over the years, there is still much more work to be done."

The Washington University students filed civil rights complaints against Mother's with the Justice Department, the Illinois Attorney General's Office and the Chicago Commission on Human Relations.

They have also sparked a dialogue back on their own campus in St. Louis about racism, using the incident as a "teachable moment" in a well-attended town hall meeting on the topic Monday night.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

A popular nightclub in Chicago is facing criticism after a group of African-American college students claimed that they were blocked from entering. The bar is called Mother's and the students came from Washington University in St. Louis. They say that they were turned away because of a policy banning baggy clothing - a policy they say they believe targets them because of their race.

NPR's David Schaper has the story.

DAVID SCHAPER: Washington University senior Regis Murayi is student council treasurer and one of the organizers of this year's senior fall break trip. They came to Chicago a little over a week ago. Nearly 200 Wash-U seniors prepaid $25 a piece for an all-you-can-drink special at Mother's Saturday night. Just before midnight, Murayi says he and five other African-American students tried to get into the club, but were stopped by a bouncer at the door.

Mr. REGIS MURAYI (Student Council Treasurer, Washington University): And he said that, you know, our jeans were too baggy, and that they had a baggy-jeans policy at the establishment. And that, you know, we're in violation of it and we weren't going to be allowed because of that.

SCHAPER: Murayi says he tried pleading with the bouncer and a manager. Another student suggested they go back to their hotel and change, but Murayi says the manager told them they still wouldn't be allowed in.

Mr. MURAYI: Alarm bells went off in my mind automatically.

SCHAPER: Murayi, a double major in math and economics from Aberdeen, Maryland, says, he has been targeted by such dress codes before.

Mr. MURAYI: A lot of times, baggy-jean policies are used, in my opinion, to reject a certain demographic, mostly black men, from being entered - allowed entry into certain places.

SCHAPER: Murayi and other Washington University students say white members of the class who wore pants that were just as baggy were allowed in. And in an experiment of sorts, he exchanged jeans with a white student, Jordan Roberts, to see if Jordan could still get in.

Mr. MURAYI: Jordan's about 3 inches shorter than me and probably close to 40 pounds lighter than me. And he said he felt like a clown, his pants were ridiculous, but he just kind of walked up and was allowed in.

SCHAPER: A representative of Mother's says the company is conducting an internal investigation and that it would issue a statement soon. A human resources manager was quoted by the Chicago Tribune as saying the dress code is for security and is meant to keep gang members out. In addition to banning oversized or baggy clothing, it also bans athletic wear and jerseys and work boots and clothes. And it's not just Mother's, but most of the trendy singles' bars and nightclubs in the popular Rush Street area have dress codes, including nearby McFadden's.

Mr. DENNIS GOFF (Head of Security, McFadden's): Our dress code is nice pants, nice shirt, nice shoes, no ripped clothes, no baggy clothes.

SCHAPER: Dennis Goff is head of security at McFadden's.

Mr. GOFF: This is downtown Chicago, this is not Ma and Pa's, you know what I mean? Everybody down here dresses the same, and that's it. No ghetto clothes � you come down, dress nice, dress - good time - come down, have a good time, that's it.

SCHAPER: And Goff says he applies the policy to everyone.

Mr. GOFF: It's not just black � it's white, it's Mexican. It's everybody, you what I mean?

SCHAPER: But not everybody agrees nightclub dress codes are enforced so equally.

Mr. HERMAN BREWER (Acting President and CEO, Chicago Urban League): Well, they're discriminatory codes.

SCHAPER: Herman Brewer is acting president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. He says like policies like those at Mother's and increasingly at bars, clubs and restaurants all around the country are much more than dress codes.

Mr. BREWER: They are ways of profiling people based on their appearance.

SCHAPER: The Washington University students filed civil rights complaints against Mother's with the Justice Department, the Illinois attorney general's office and the Chicago Commission on Human Relations. And they've sparked a dialogue back on their own campus in St. Louis about racism, using the incident as a teachable moment in a well-attended town hall meeting on the topic Monday night.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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