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Lawsuit Highlights Alleged Racial Discrimination In Public Accommodations

This article is more than 11 years old.

New allegations of racial discrimination in Boston-area bars and restaurants have come to light in the wake of a state lawsuit filed against the bar Peggy O'Neil's in Dorchester.

Attorney General Martha Coakley says her office has received seven more complaints against the Dorchester bar in the week since she filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the establishment.

The lawsuit alleges Peggy O'Neil's and its owner, Caron O'Neil, engaged in a pattern of singling out black and Hispanic patrons in line. O'Neil allegedly told them that since she didn't know them and didn't want trouble, she wouldn't let them in.

WBUR went to Peggy O'Neil's, where a woman identifying herself as another owner, Tracy O'Neil, said the allegations are false. In 35 years of business, she said, the bar has never discriminated. She wouldn't comment further.

"You get the feeling that no matter your level of education or what you've accomplished, everything is still suspect because you're a member of a minority group."

Eduardo Ratchell, local resident

Coakley says one of her goals in such cases is to mandate anti-discrimination training, "so that while they are doing their job in terms of maintaining the safety of a place, they're also not making distinctions based upon race."

Michael Curry, president of the NAACP Boston branch, says he's heard of distinctions in the form of drinks. According to Curry, bouncers at three different bars in the city have told him the establishments are no longer serving certain brands of alcohol most commonly consumed by minority patrons.

"The effort would be to not sell those any longer, in order to avoid a flow of customers coming in who are black or brown," Curry said.

Coakley's office has also received word of such policies.

"We understand there is some leeway for institutions in terms of what they offer on a menu or what kind of music they play," Coakley said. "But what is illegal is intentional discrimination."

Eduardo Ratchell says he experienced racial discrimination in the form of an arbitrarily enforced dress code at King's Bowl in Dedham. He says in November 2009, he went to the new bowling nightclub still wearing clothes from his federal office job — dress slacks and shoes and a sweater with a hood, which was not on his head.

About an hour after bouncers let him in, Ratchell, who is Dominican, says another employee approached him.

"And he says, 'You can't be in here wearing that,' " Ratchell recalls.

Employees told him he'd have to take off his hooded sweater or leave. Ratchell says he left feeling humiliated, as the incident "wasn't subtle."

"I was approached in front of everybody at the bar," Ratchell said. "You get the feeling that no matter your level of education or what you've accomplished, everything is still suspect because you're a member of a minority group."

Ratchell says the other customers in the club that night were white, and many of them were wearing hooded shirts, along with baseball hats — which are specified as violating the dress code.

He filed a complaint with the the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. A commissioner has found probable cause and scheduled a conference on the case for next month.

King's Bowl's marketing manager sent WBUR a statement saying the establishment "does not engage in discrimination" but has policies "which must be adhered to in order to ensure that each patron has a satisfying and safe experience."

Curry, of the NAACP, says he's distressed by continued allegations of discrimination by way of supposed dress codes.

"The NAACP Boston branch argues that this happens on a daily basis in Boston," Curry said.

In another complaint, filed Monday with MCAD, Diana Gilson of Sharon — who is African-American — claims she and her 8-year-old daughter, Charlotte, experienced racial discrimination at a day spa south of Boston in June. She says an employee first checked them in, then came back and said they couldn't have any of their facial, nail or hair services because of overnight flooding in the facial room.

"In fact, after she saw how sad my daughter's face looked, and when I reminded her it was her birthday, she recommended maybe going to what she called their 'sister spa,' which was located in Brockton," Gilson said.

When we called the spa, a woman identifying herself as the owner said the spa did have a drain problem in its pedicure room one day early this summer, but stayed open and served customers all day.

She said she doesn't discriminate against customers. In fact, she said, she employs many African-American women. Gilson says if that's true, it means nothing in terms of her complaint.

"You can have 99 percent of your staff [be] persons of color," Gilson said. "But if you have one person there who treats people of color like they treated us on that day, it is unacceptable."

The spa representative told us she had no knowledge of the incident, though Gilson says she sent a certified letter detailing it to another manager.

WBUR is not naming the spa, because the business has not yet received formal notification of the complaint Gilson just filed.

Meanwhile, MCAD reports only 5 percent of its cases last year involved public accommodations. That includes cases based on disabilities, not only race.

Coakley and Curry say they are partnering to increase awareness and encourage more victims to come forward. Coakley says though lawsuits are "few and far between" right now, there is still "a lot more work to do around attitudes."

This program aired on August 23, 2011.

Lynn Jolicoeur Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.



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