Black customer says Glenwood South bar used dress code to discriminate against him

Milton Gavin Lewis Jr. wearing the clothes and shoes he was wearing on Oct. 21 when he says he was refused entry to Raleigh’s Milk Bar.
Milton Gavin Lewis Jr. wearing the clothes and shoes he was wearing on Oct. 21 when he says he was refused entry to Raleigh’s Milk Bar.

Milton Gavin Lewis Jr. didn’t think much of it when he was turned away on a recent Friday night at Raleigh’s Milk Bar because he was wearing Jordan basketball shoes.

But then Lewis, 31, of Raleigh, said he watched a friend, also wearing Jordans, be let into the bar by the same bouncer. Lewis is black. His friend is white.

That’s why Lewis now thinks he was discriminated against because of his race. “Initially, I didn’t think that,” Lewis said. “To see my friend dressed a lot more casual than I was and clearly had on Jordans, (the employee) let him in with no hassle.”

Milk Bar’s director of operations, Jennifer May Heasty, said she was disheartened to learn that people think the dress code is used to exclude specific people. That’s not the intent, she said.

“It’s about the clothes,” Heasty said. “It’s not about the person in the clothes.”

Efforts to reach those working the door the night that Lewis says he was turned away were not successful. Heasty said she shared a request for an interview request with her employees, but they declined.

Milk Bar opened earlier this year in the former Creamery building at 410 Glenwood Ave, which also houses Sullivan’s Steakhouse. Its weekend dress code is posted online: “No tank tops after 9 p.m. No plain white tees. No large chains or excessive neck jewelry – men. No baggy or loose fitting clothing. No athletic wear (Basketball type shoes, team jerseys, sweatpants, joggers.). No construction-style work boots (Cat, Carhart, Timberlands.) No cutoffs of any kind. No rags or bandanas. No biker vests. No weapons. No backpacks. Shoes always required.”

Tricky codes

Dress codes, which are common at Raleigh’s nightclubs, can be tricky. It’s not illegal for a private business to have a dress code, even a dress code that appears to target a specific group of people. But at bars, dress code enforcement is left to the person at the front door checking IDs. If that employee does not consistently enforce the dress code, they can run afoul of federal anti-discrimination laws, explained Erika Wilson, a University of North Carolina law professor who specializes in civil litigation, civil rights, and race and the law.

“What they cannot do – is not uniformly apply the dress code,” Wilson said.

This isn’t the first time a Glenwood South bar has been accused of discrimination. In 2012, a black graduate student bound for Harvard University claimed that he was ejected from the now-closed Downtown Sports Bar and Grill because of his race. The bar manager said race was not a factor but rather that the man was not a member of the private club and was not buying food and drinks. Charges of ethnic intimidation and assault against the manager were dismissed. A blog post about the incident led to social media attention and a protest.

It’s about the clothes. It’s not about the person in the clothes.

Jennifer May Heasty, Milk Bar director of operations

Heasty said Milk Bar’s security staff members, who start between 9 and 10 each night, are trained on checking identification and enforcing the dress code. (People who come in before that time can wear clothes or shoes that don’t fit the dress code.) After 10 p.m. if the staff sees a dress code violation, Heasty said, they will turn away patrons but encourage them to come back if their attire complies. She said they don’t discriminate when it comes to who they turn away.

“Even the owner’s friends,” Heasty said. “There are no exceptions.”

Lewis was out with a group of about eight friends and acquaintances in October, first stopping at Clockwork and then heading to Milk Bar around midnight. Lewis, who had never been to Milk Bar before, said he was dressed more casual than he normally would be for a trip to the bars but he had come from the N.C. State Fair. Lewis said he was wearing a red Cornell University hoodie (his alma mater), a T-shirt, jeans and black and red Jordans.

Some of the group was already in the bar and others were making their way when Lewis said he was turned away. Lewis’ friend, Austin McComas, 28, of Raleigh, soon arrived. The two men know each other from the University of New Haven, where they got their master’s degrees in business administration. McComas, who says he was wearing a blue T-shirt, jeans and white Jordan Retro 6 shoes, was let into the bar after Lewis was refused.

It’s unfortunate I had to witness it. It’s unfortunate that my friend, Gavin, had to experience it. It’s embarrassing. It’s degrading.

Austin McComas, who was let into the bar while his friend, Milton Gavin Lewis Jr., was not

“It’s clear it was based solely on skin color,” said McComas, who went inside to retrieve their friends and confronted the bar employee on the way out.

McComas added: “It’s certainly disconcerting. It’s not some place I’ll return. It’s unfortunate I had to witness it. It’s unfortunate that my friend, Gavin, had to experience it. It’s embarrassing. It’s degrading.”

Another claim

This is not the only patron who claims to have been turned away at Milk Bar based on what they thinks is a discriminatory dress code. Several customers have posted similar complaints on Yelp.; Efforts to reach those patrons about those experiences were not successful except for one customer who says he also was turned away on the night of Oct. 21.

Joseph Spataro, 28, of Morrisville, said he was with about eight co-workers who attempted to go into Milk Bar at about 10 p.m. Spataro, who is white, said he and a black friend were turned away by an employee citing their basketball shoes.

At that moment, Spataro said he noticed a white man coming out of the bar wearing Converse shoes, which have a long association with basketball that dates to 1921 and renowned player Chuck Taylor. When Spataro questioned the employee about the disparity, Spataro said the man responded: “Those aren’t basketball shoes.”

Spataro said he thinks the basketball shoe prohibition targets black patrons. “You are discriminating against a large group of people and many of them are black,” he said.

Heasty said this is the first she had heard about complaints from customers who were turned away on Oct. 21. She said no one among these patrons contacted the bar via phone, email, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. (Milk Bar’s Yelp page was not claimed by the business until after management was contacted by the N&O; that allows the business owner to respond directly to complaints posted there.)

And about those Converse shoes, Heasty said, while Converse may have an old association with basketball, her staff considers those casual shoes for the purposes of the dress code.

“If any one of these gentlemen had gone and changed, they would have been welcomed in – as long as they were in the dress code,” Heasty said.

Andrea Weigl: 919-829-4848, @andreaweigl