Dining While Black

It may sound like racism, but there's a twist . . .

Katrina Parker, Laverne Frazier,  and her daughter, - Venus: Rousted for being black at a fancy hotel. - Walter  Novak
Katrina Parker, Laverne Frazier, and her daughter, Venus: Rousted for being black at a fancy hotel.
Laverne Frazier had just gone to visit a friend with a new baby. It was now past 10 p.m., and she was looking for dinner. So along with her daughter, Venus, and her niece, Katrina Parker, she decided to stop by the Renaissance Hotel.

It's a glorious old joint, the kind of place where Franklin Roosevelt might have stayed, home to traveling suits in search of luxury during their stay in Cleveland. Which is to say, it's not particularly inviting to regular people, who aren't prone to parting with Roosevelt kinda money just to eat supper.

But most of the downtown restaurants had already stopped serving. The Renaissance was Frazier's default position.

The women ate dinner, then went to the bathroom before heading home. "We come out and the security guard is waiting there with a cocky grin," Frazier says. He told her that "three suspicious black ladies" were caught on hotel cameras. He wanted to know what they were doing.

Frazier knew the score. She'd just spent $71 for dinner. "It didn't even taste that great." Now she was being rousted for Attending to Bodily Functions While Black.

She doesn't look like a criminal. She does, in fact, look very much like the 45-year-old nurse and mother she is. She told the guard that she'd just eaten. He wanted to know if she actually paid.

They went to the front desk, where Frazier got on the phone with the guard in the camera room. She says he told her that "black people usually don't come in here unless they're celebrities. You guys didn't look like celebrities." That's why she'd been questioned.

By the time the dispute was over, the women were being escorted out by an off-duty cop.

Renaissance General Manager Gary McGauley is a gracious man. His soothing voice, his ingratiating manner -- everything about him seems to say, "How can I make your stay a pleasant one?" But he's not happy to see a reporter. "It's a regrettable incident," he says.

The next day, McGauley called Frazier to "profusely apologize." He comped her dinner and thought it was over. Then a reporter tells him Frazier's side of the story. He has a different one to tell.

Yes, it was unfortunate that security stopped a guest, he says, but the guards were polite and professional. No one said anything about blacks never staying there. "I hope you don't believe that."

In fact, it all would have been much ado about nothing had Frazier not made a scene, he says. "By the time Ms. Frazier reached the lobby, she was yelling profanities very loudly," McGauley says. "She used language -- that I will not repeat -- at the top of her lungs . . . She told my secretary the next day that she was so upset, she wanted to throw herself down the stairs, 'so you'd have two lawsuits on your hands.'"

It's easy to believe both sides. If you try to buy your family a nice dinner and end up getting interrogated, you're going to be upset. And if you come from a people who get rousted with regularity, you may be inclined to employ the nuclear option from your verbal arsenal.

Venus has seen it before. She's been to the white suburban stores where the clerks "won't pay attention to anybody, but they'll follow me." She's waited in line behind the white guy who won't be asked for an I.D. to verify a credit card, but she'll be asked for hers.

Yet Mom interrupts. This incident isn't about Whitey. It's about their own. "This was our own people that got it started before the white man got called," she says.

You see, all the guards who questioned her were black.

"I'm still embarrassed that something like this could happen, that your own people think that you can't afford a place like this," says Frazier.

So she not so politely informed them they were "Uncle Toms."

In this case, however, Tom doesn't make an expedient villain. This isn't an easy job, running a fancy hotel next to Bum Central, also known as Public Square. Outside the building, guests must navigate Cleveland's crazed and hygienically challenged. If the Renaissance wants to stay in business, the inside must be kept a weirdness-free zone.

Guards regularly fight hit-and-run skirmishes with the homeless who use hotel bathrooms for bathing, with the beggars who mooch from guests. So we might be inclined to forgive their zealotry. It's about their livelihood.

It's also about the very elusive matter of race. We're all supposed to be P.C., to treat everyone as an individual, not as representative of a people. But no one actually does. To do so is to forget experience and personal history. Colorblindness is a lot like Marxism: It's a nice theory, as long as you exclude human nature.

Besides, had Frazier shown up in the uniform of a Renaissance guest -- power suit in somber blacks, blues, or grays -- it's likely she would have been greeted with standard obsequiousness. But she had come from visiting her friend, in the uniform of everyday Cleveland. This is a joint where everyday Cleveland doesn't belong, regardless of pigmentation.

And it's not just black guys who pigeonhole their own. Whitey does the same. Try showing up at a car dealership in your dirty work clothes and see how long it takes for any of the gaggle of salesmen to wait on you. Come closing time, you'll still be standing alone.

But you can't expect Frazier to back off. When you treat your family to a nice dinner, only to be insulted by the very people you've paid, you don't let it slide. You take revenge.

The Renaissance can't back off either. To lose its vigilance likely means losing its business. If guards occasionally get one wrong, that's the price of putting food on their children's table.

So who's in the wrong here?