'Rank' Discrimination Leaves me with a Bitter Aftertaste


How does one know whether one has been a victim of discrimination?

Often identifying discrimination can be as nebulous as the Supreme Court's definition of pornography: You know when you see it. Or in this case, you know it when you feel it.

I experienced such a feeling last week in Jacksonville, FL, while attending the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Pastors Conference--an annual social justice conference for African American clergy.

On the last night of the conference a ministerial colleague and I decided to dine at the local Ruth's Chris Steak House. I was dressed in all black--turtleneck, slacks, shoes, along with my customary Kangol cap, which I wear backwards.

After we had been there for approximately 40 minutes, 30 of which was spent in the lounge waiting for a table, the general manager appeared demanding that I remove my cap so that I would not "risk offending the other patrons."

There was no posted hat policy that I was aware of. Neither the maitre d' nor the two waiters who provided us service mentioned anything about my hat prior to the general manager. The manager didn't say anyone had actually complained, and I respectfully declined his request.

Since the removal of my hat was contingent on our receiving service, we left the restaurant. This is where that amorphous discrimination feeling kicked in.

Not wanting to base my feeling solely on the fact that we were the only African Americans dining in the establishment, I considered other factors.

Was it my overall attire?

This possibility, however, was quickly eliminated given that several patrons were wearing jeans and sneakers. The restaurant's website lists attire as "casual to dressy, jackets not required."

Perhaps it was corporate policy. But the corporate office assured me they had no such policy. After calling 25 locations across country I only found one with a no hat policy. But that policy was for "men only" and is waived whenever a particular local celebrity decides not to remove his hat.

I couldn't help feeling that the general manager's desire to bend my will was greater than his willingness to provide us with the "warm, comfortable atmosphere" advertised on the restaurant's website.

Whatever I was feeling appeared to violate the Ruth's Chris mantra: "All you have to do here is be you, unless you're no fun." Somehow my being me resulted in no service.

It would be easy to dismiss this experience on the ignorance of one misguided restaurant general manager, or to suggest that the Bay Area is not bound by the social stumbling blocks that plague Jacksonville.

While I feel that what happened at the Ruth's Chris in Jacksonville was discrimination, which may have included race, I believe the real culprit was "rankism."

This is what former Oberlin College president, Robert Fuller was addressing in his book "Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank."

I wrote last year about Fuller's work to deconstruct what he defines as the "mother of all isms". Rankism determines how we treat someone based on their perceived rank in society--the lower the rank the higher the possibility for abuse. Rankism may have something to do with the dismal response to Hurricane Katrina victims.

Would the general manager's approach have been the same with Prince Charles or Colin Powell? Rankism is why the one Ruth's Chris restaurant that admitted to having "men only" hat policy is willing to bend it for a local celebrity, who also happens to be African American.

So many of our social sins are based on an association within a group, be it race, gender, or sexual orientation.

What makes rankism unique is its ability to transform the victims of the aforementioned groups into "rankists," abusing others based on perceived power, position or social setting.

Therefore, rankism is as prevalent in blue states as it is in red ones. It is quite possible to have black-on-black rankism.

The good news was that we discovered an excellent restaurant in the Jacksonville area that did not require that I remove my cap. But there was this bitter aftertaste of rankism that just wouldn't go away.