Mothers settlement should be a model for rectifying racism

| Senior Forum Editor

In America today, it is easy to forget that there are some things that lawsuits cannot settle, things that legislation cannot change.
It makes sense to sue those who embezzle money for financial damages; similarly, it makes sense to put dangerous criminals behind bars. The former ensures that wealth is redistributed appropriately; the latter makes certain that the accused do not commit similar acts of violence again. In these cases, the punishment is appropriate and contributes to a just, secure society.

In cases of racist activity, however, the wrong that must be rectified is not the act itself, but the sentiment behind it. The impetus behind wrongful acts such as turning customers away from an establishment because of their race begins long before these acts take place.

It is therefore necessary—and appropriate—that the settlement announced this Wednesday between the Original Mothers bar and the six Washington University seniors it turned away on the basis of race does not involve punitive financial damages but rather mandates direct participation in diversity awareness training for the employees of the bar. Because racist acts begin with ingrained prejudices, these prejudices must be removed—layer by layer—if the inherent wrongness of the action is to genuinely be rectified.

I am certain that some will criticize the settlement, saying that it is not harsh enough, that a lawsuit demanding punitive damages is justified, that Mothers bar ought to be put out of business because of its actions.

Such a lawsuit, though, would localize the incident and limit the dialogue that it has the potential to create. As members of our community discussed at the Town Hall meeting on Monday, and as several students have alluded to in comments on the Student Life Web site, the fact that students were turned away from a club because of their race was not surprising. The Mothers incident speaks to a larger problem—one that no amount of money could rectify, and one that putting a single nightclub out of business could hardly make a dent in.

The fact is that racism still exists in our society. It exists, however, in ingrained prejudices that cannot legally be manifested, thanks to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent civil rights legislation.

The great civil rights battle of our generation will not be fought on legal grounds, but rather on social grounds; it is only when owners of nightclubs do not associate gang activity with race that justice will truly be served. This is perhaps a utopian vision, but I believe that it is a goal worth striving for.

By forcing the bar to sponsor fundraisers for socially just causes, and by forcing its employees to undergo diversity training, the settlement begins to rectify a larger social wrong than what happened to the “Mothers Men” last weekend.

In her column this Wednesday, Eve Samborn wrote that we ought to take the response to this incident as a model for student activism. Knowing how the response has played out in legal terms, I’d like to take this prescription a step further: We ought to take the response to this incident as a model of how to resolve acts motivated by prejudice.

The apology to be issued by Mothers should retract the racist sentiments behind the bar’s action. The diversity awareness education programming should force its employees to formulate other, more appropriate, ways of thinking about the relationship between race and culture.

The six students who negotiated this settlement demonstrated an admirable capacity to look past the problem at hand and ensure that the incident creates a larger dialogue about race and social justice. Hearing Wednesday’s news made me proud to be a member of the Wash. U. community.

Kate is a junior in Arts & Sciences. She can be reached via e-mail at kate.gaertner@studlife.com.