Cracking the Code: Race, Class, and Access to Nightclubs in Urban America

Abstract

Using ethnographic data collected in the downtown nightlife of Athens, Georgia, we explore black males’ responses to being rejected from nightclubs via dress code enforcement in predominately white settings. We contrast these responses to the general experiences of other black males who gained access. Although race is a factor in the enforcement of dress codes, we find a fluid relationship between race, class, and taste that influences black males’ responses and experiences. We illustrate how the nuanced reality of lived racial and class experiences for many young black males problematize the narrow interpretation of a black cultural essence.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Downtown Athens is a social space used predominantly by college-age patrons, but occasionally May would encounter older university administrators or other professors in the area. These patrons usually departed downtown before the 12:00 a.m. hour and typically patronized only restaurants or drinking establishments that targeted more mature patrons. For a more detailed description of May’s encounters with older patrons and his discussion of how he negotiated multiple identities see May (2003).

  2. 2.

    We note that although our analysis is based primarily on the data gathered by May, this paper is developed through the synthesis of our ideas derived from our discussions and written communications about black males’ responses to the dress codes.

  3. 3.

    For a brief historical development of University of Georgia visit http://www.uga.edu/profile/history.html.

  4. 4.

    Population & Demographics (2000), Athens-Clarke County Information, (Electronic Version). Retrieved May 20, 2005 from the US Census Bureau (Electronic Version) at http://factfinder.census.gov.

  5. 5.

    The University of Georgia 2004 Fact Book (Electronic Version) retrieved May 24, 2005 from http://www.oir.uga.edu/factbks.htm.

  6. 6.

    The Mr. T notation makes reference to a black actor who is most known for his role as Sgt. Bosco Albert, “B.A.,” (Bad Attitude) Baracus, in the 1980s television series the “A” Team. On the show Mr. T played the role of a gruff, hyper-masculine, aggressive member of a military Special Forces Unit. Mr. T demonstrated irrational phobias and contributed little to the intellectual process of planning an attack. During his public appearances Mr. T wore several large gold chains around his neck. Thus, the sign indicating “no Mr. T. starter kits” suggests that patrons may not be permitted in the nightclub if they have a single gold chain that is presumed to be a beginning to subsequent gold chains.

    Although it might seem that this generation of partygoers might be unfamiliar with Mr. T, their knowledge of such entertainers and television programs from the 1980s is based on the constant replay of television programs, music, and videos from this time. The themes and actors from the 1980s are re-appropriated by these college viewers. In fact, there were several 80s music theme parties held in downtown Athens. We observed at these parties that college students collectively sang the lyrics to songs that were popular before the college students had been born.

  7. 7.

    It is important to note that given the under-representation of African American male professors at most universities, they are highly sought after by black students to participate on panels, act as mentors, and for general advice. Thus, May had come into contact with many African American students from his general campus involvement. Indeed, these relationships sometimes become over extended and have been cited by senior faculty as additional responsibilities that typically hinder junior faculty from attaining tenure.

  8. 8.

    Here we use the nuanced notion of class based on John Jackson’s (2001) conceptualization of class. Jackson indicates that class “is not just education or occupation, income or wealth, but lifestyles—skills and cultural practices—that distinguish and determine classes” (p. 63).

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank the participants in the Race and Ethnicity Workshop at Texas A&M University, Department of Sociology, Mary Pattillo, and anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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Correspondence to Reuben A. Buford May.

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May, R.A.B., Chaplin, K.S. Cracking the Code: Race, Class, and Access to Nightclubs in Urban America. Qual Sociol 31, 57–72 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-007-9084-7

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Keywords

  • Dress codes
  • Race
  • Class