This week, the Attorney General's civil-rights division is investigating whether a Boston club engaged in discrimination when it shut down a private Ivy League party last month. This follows a request by City Counselor Ayanna Pressley for the city's licensing board to look into the incident, which has reopened long-simmering tensions between nightclub owners and black patrons.
The story broke along predictable lines. A spokesman for the club, Cure, says the shut-down came after bouncers spotted "bad guys" in line for the party for black Harvard and Yale alumni. But the party's organizer, Michael Beal, saw something more sinister.
"We were perceived as a threat because of our skin color," he said, in a widely-distributed email to attendees of the party. He added that in talking to the club's owner, "I do not believe him to be a racist; which only adds to my consternation around what this event says about race relations in our country."
To many, the incident appeared to be just another episode of ongoing racism in the nightclub scene. "It didn't shock me at all," says George "Chip" Greenidge, executive director of the National Black College Alliance. Far from being an exception, Greenidge says the incident at Cure "is a textbook example of how African Americans are treated when it comes to trying to enjoy life downtown."
There have long been allegations in Boston that nightclubs hold different standards for different audiences — but those allegations can be difficult to document. And promoters have little incentive to blow the whistle in a highly competitive business that's built on personal relationships.
Liz Miranda, head of DSTination Lifestyle Group, an event planning company, says that she has good relations with club owners after a decade on the Boston scene. Even so, she says, she's seen evidence of discrimination.
She explains: "A friend of mine, a white promoter, and I went to get a party at the same venue. I was charged a $4500 bar guarantee. He was charged $2000. And once I got the party, the venue even charged everyone that bought a drink an 18 percent [gratuity] on their cards, under the notion that they wanted to make sure the staff was taken care of. And this was a non-negotiable situation. It doesn't always apply to who is in the building. Many times there has to be a dress code. But they had a party the night before where all the gentlemen in the room wore jeans and sneakers. Why do we have to have slacks and shoes the next day?"
The Cure incident couldn't have come at a more critical time. In 2011, after years of behind-the-scenes work, two major African-American conventions will arrive in Boston. And what they see may determine whether Boston can continue to attract convention and tourism business when some still associate the city with the busing wars of the 1970s.
In an effort "to discuss how Boston can attract and retain the skilled labor workforce that will enable our city to compete in the 21st century," Citizens' Committee on Boston's Future, a fact-finding committee led by City Council President Michael Ross, was scheduled to meet around the issues of nightlife. These latest allegations are sure to weigh heavily on everyone's minds.
"People have worked for decades to advance this city," says Pressley, "and I won't have that progress compromised. Not only because we don't want to move back, but also because this is bad for Boston's brand. And there is an economic impact to that."