Little Red Hen found a grain of wheat. “Who will plant this?” she asked. “Not I,” said the cat. “Not I,” said the goose. “Not I,” said the rat. “Then I will,” said Little Red Hen...
The owner of a Lexington, Virginia, family restaurant may have planted the seed of a trend this past week, when she made national headlines by politely and privately asking Presidential Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her party to leave the premises. The owner of the Red Hen Restaurant, Stephanie Wilkinson, has described herself as “not a huge fan of confrontation.”
|Red Hen Restaurant|
“I have a business, and I want the business to thrive,” she explained after the incident. But somehow, she just didn’t feel she could countenance Sarah Sanders’ presence on her property. It wasn’t a snap decision. Nor was it a command decision. She briefly talked it over with her employees, who, she indicates, expressed their disgust with the Trump administration’s stance against transgender people who want to serve in the country’s armed forces, and, more particularly, with Trump’s family separation policy regarding undocumented immigrants.
Based on her own convictions and those of her employees, Wilkinson asked the White House press secretary to step into the patio, and privately explained to Sanders that her business had “certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation,” and that she felt Sarah Huckabee Sanders clearly didn’t meet those standards. Therefore, she was asking Sanders to leave.
The conversations that Wilkinson has had with the media since the incident seem to make it fairly clear that this wasn’t the sort of situation or action that she was particularly comfortable with. She could have let it pass, not said anything, served Huckabee Sanders and her group of seven diners and simply hoped, in her heart of hearts, that this major presidential spokesperson never came back again. But, in the end, the restaurant owner didn’t feel she could do that in good faith.
Said Wilkinson, “This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.”
As a liberal democratic thinker, I have squirmed a little over my feelings about this incident. The devil inside me dances a jig to see almost any complicit Trumpian defender—but particularly Lying Sarah—getting a hard time. But the justice-seeker and rights-defender in me is leery of situations in which anything like discrimination gets a pass.
Right away, I start thinking of baseball great Jackie Robinson eating in the kitchen or sleeping on the bus while his white teammates ate in restaurants and slept on hotel sheets. I also recall the barber in Yellow Springs, Ohio, when I was a boy, who refused service to African Americans because he “didn’t know how to cut Negro hair.” I see drinking fountains with signs that say “colored”, tired African Americans riding in the back of the public transport bus, restrooms marked Men, Women and Colored. I also see Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, two African American men who were arrested earlier this year in a Starbucks coffee shop for loitering, when they told the management they were waiting for friends. (That incident, at least, had a happy ending: Nelson and Robinson sued and settled for one dollar each and two hundred thousand dollars for the setting up of a program for young entrepreneurs: clearly, in their case, it was about the principle, not the money).
|Sarah Huckabee Sanders|
But then I ask myself, is this the same thing? And the answer is, I don’t think so. This is more of a political statement, I feel, a First Amendment kind of question. It’s about a restaurant owner reserving the right of entry to the premises of a private business on moral and political grounds. The message is, you are defending the indefensible. You are taking money to relate unconscionable lies to the American public. You are the chief broadcaster of nefarious, unethical and undemocratic policies that defy the spirit and letter of American tradition and law and, as such, we’re refusing you service. Not because you are white, a Republican, a woman, a conservative or a government employee, but because you are complicit with and a promoter of policies and actions that we find morally and politically repugnant.
Is it legal to refuse service? That depends on what state laws and local ordinances say. Although under federal law, the Civil Rights Act prohibits the withholding of service due to race—and President Trump knows this since he has had more than one complaint brought against his real estate business under federal law for skirting rental of his properties to blacks. And then too, we’ve heard of business owners on the right who have gotten away with turning away same sex couples who wanted to buy a wedding cake, and of Kentucky clerk of courts Kim Davis who defied a federal order to issue a marriage license to a gay couple because it would be offensive to her religious beliefs. (Kentucky had to pay a quarter-million-dollar settlement, but Davis subsequently kept her job and became a hero to many Evangelicals). There have also been cases of gun range owners who have refused service to Muslims—one, Jan Morgan of Arkansas, proudly declaring the indoor shooting range she owns “a Muslim-free zone”.
The truth is that while a rather large minority of Americans support President Trump and find his most controversial policies almost refreshingly authoritarian, the vast majority of people in the United States are shocked, upset, frustrated and fearful of the trend that the US is taking under Donald Trump—a far-right trend that challenges the Constitution, engenders racism and religious discrimination, openly targets Muslims (even achieving conservative Supreme Court backing for a clearly discriminatory travel ban) and generally eroding the two and a half century old democratic foundations of the country. And as Red Hen owner Stephanie Wilkinson indicates, those who see and feel the demise of democracy and the onset of autocracy in the US are past passive worry and are seeking innovative and decisive actions to show that they are standing up to be counted rather than being complicit through silence.
The question remains, will such definitive actions serve any purpose other than making those who implement them feel they are taking a stand? And won’t the reaction that is bound to come from the other side only worsen the divisions that are already threatening to tear the fabric of the United States in two?
I’m thinking, no, to the first, and, yes, to the second. But I’m also thinking that there is little that can be done to change the outcome. The reality is that the United States is on the brink of an ideological confrontation that could have previously unthinkable consequences as its people become more and more polarized along political, racial and religious lines. Perhaps the most polarized that they have been since the Civil War.