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.