Dress codes and the Tipsy Jim Crow


There are few remnants of Jim Crow and institutionalized discrimination as commonly tolerated and accepted as dress codes. Their role as exclusionary gatekeepers is by nature prejudiced and often reflects an attitude of classism, racism, sexism, and sometimes all three.

Let’s look at an example that was recently brought to my attention from an establishment in Des Moines, Iowa called the Tipsy Crow. By compiling an encompassing list of banned articles and styles worn commonly by African-Americans (particularly of lower socioeconomic status), the Tipsy Crow is sending the message that an entire segment of society is unwelcome in their establishment. Whether or not this is discrimination isn’t even the question—it is CLEARLY discrimination based on preferred dress and not-so-subtly discrimination based on race.

The questions worth examining here are, to what extent do private enterprises have the freedom to explicitly discriminate so casually and what are the ethical considerations that comprise this debate?

Dress is generally understood within a cultural context to be an expression of the individual or as a part of society as a whole. It runs the gamut from liberal and unrestricted (think Caribbean carnival attire) to conservative garb meant mostly to cover (a niqab or burka for example). In the United States, our society historically and institutionally values individual liberty and one need look no further than to the First Amendment of the Constitution to see freedom of expression prioritized as a principle emblem of our freedom.

It’s here I’ll explore the first of the four principles of biomedical ethics: respect for autonomy. Defined by Beauchamp and Childress as the right for an individual to make his or her own choice, dress codes violate this principle simply by disallowing the freedom to choose what to wear. This private sector paternalism is egregiously heavy-handed, not simply suggesting a preferred aesthetic but barring from its establishment those who don’t abide by an arbitrary set of discriminatory wardrobe standards.

Justice is the principle of fair distribution of resources and again, this principle is violated by the premise of the dress code. If we evaluate a business such as the Tipsy Crow through the lens of providing the resources of food, services, and space to gather, it’s clear their dress code violates the principle of justice. All else equal, if two people try to enter, but one has baggy jeans and is wearing Timberlands and is thus denied, there is an ethical problem here.

We’ll try not to assume that a black person would have any harder of a time entering than a white person wearing baggy jeans and construction boots, but based on the obviously racially-motivated list of banned attire, you can draw your own conclusions.

There’s also the problem of subjectivity when it comes to some of the items on the list. What constitutes baggy jeans? Do mine need to be clinging to my thighs like Saran wrap in order for me to gain entry? If this is left to the discretion of the doorman, personal biases are liable to play a role and again the principle of justice is at risk.

The principles of beneficence (doing good) and nonmaleficence (doing no harm) go hand in hand and can be applied with elementary ease to this case. Scenario A: You let people dress how they want and let them in to patronize the establishment. No one is discriminated based on how they appear. This is beneficence. Scenario B: You bar certain people from the establishment based on how they dress. They are discriminated. This is maleficence.

In the weeks since the Charlottesville, VA debacle, the question might arise: Is it wrong to limit the freedom of someone wearing a Swastika or confederate flag as part of their attire? This is obviously another topic entirely, but if you have to make a jump in logic from “plain white T-shirt” or “construction boots” in the Tipsy Crow example to a symbol of racism and ethnic genocide, clearly there is a difference. The First Amendment and freedom of expression stops at speech that leads to defamation and imminent violence, both of which were tenets of Nazism.

A dress code as clearly racist as the Tipsy Crow should be classified as outright discrimination and has no place in our society. According to news reports, the sign identifying the dress code was removed after public outcry, though the owner failed to state if the policy was actually changed. Regardless of the specifics for this particular instance, the problematic nature of dress codes is an ethical quandary better erred on the side of the fundamental freedom of choice.

– Tyler


Outside the ballot box

When federal election results are being tallied on the evening of November 8th, the votes of nearly 6 million American citizens will be missing as a result of systematic disenfranchising laws that disqualify ex-convicts from voting. The majority of states in the U.S. enforce some penal restrictions on voting: In the most egregious cases, Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky permanently bar all people with felony convictions from voting while Alabama, Mississippi, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, and Tennessee permanently disenfranchise at least some ex-criminals. As you can see in this interactive state-by-state map of disenfranchising laws, the only states that do not restrict voting for ex-offenders are Vermont and Maine.

The practical implications of these laws are problematic for representative democracy, while the ethical grounds on which they stand call into question why they were imposed in the first place. The biggest and most obvious problem is that for those who have been convicted and are no longer incarcerated, being stripped of voting rights provides another barrier to reintegration and civic engagement already made difficult by challenges that exist in obtaining gainful employment, stable housing, and societal acceptance.

Proponents of disenfranchising laws argue that ex-criminals have forfeited their rights by engaging in activity that runs contrary to the goals of a lawfully-functioning society. Let’s put aside for a moment that not all those who are convicted and serve time are even guilty of the crimes for which they’ve been charged. This is a big problem, but we’ll assume that most who are sentenced are guilty and even so we can dismantle the arguments behind the practice of disenfranchising.

The next logical problem here is that no state strips voting rights for all types of illegal activity so instead we have a system in which some crimes lead to disenfranchisement while others don’t, even in instances when the alleged threat to the public good is nearly identical. Proponents would like to believe severity is commensurate with consequences, but the arbitrary nature of the justice system means that isn’t necessarily the case. For instance, a driver in Iowa cited thrice for operating a vehicle under the influence receives a felony sentence and is permanently barred from voting even after release. An equally unsafe driver who similarly violates traffic laws and is charged with reckless endangerment or excessive speeding while sober will not face the same disenfranchisement despite that their behavior is a similar threat to the safety of the public and can reasonably be assumed to result in the same outcome (property damage, injury or loss of life, etc).

This arbitrary lineation and disenfranchisement violates the bioethical principle of justice, described by Stanford Medical as the concept of fair distribution of resources (or in this case, consequences) among society. In the case of the drunk drivers versus reckless drivers, states make their best guess at what constitutes impairment, with the majority thresholds falling around a .08 blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Our understanding of neurobiology, tolerance, toxicity and metabolism, however, recognizes that this is an inexact science and a nondrinker with an even lower BAC may be significantly impaired while someone with a higher tolerance is able to maintain homeostasis and normal functioning well over the .10 mark. This is an unfortunate inexactitude but realistically necessary as a preventive mechanism for deterring drunk driving.

However, the permanent disenfranchisement that happens for one but not the other makes no sense through the lens of the justice principle. It also makes no sense from a penal perspective, because disenfranchisement is unlikely to be an effective deterrent against such crimes since the consequences are often years in the future.

There are myriad reasons why a repealing of disenfranchisement laws results in a more just, equitable, and most importantly, democratic society. Permanent barring of voting is a counterproductive and oppressive practice that discourages reintegration and erects insurmountable barriers to representation that no free citizen should be without.

– Tyler