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.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
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).
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.
For a brief historical development of University of Georgia visit http://www.uga.edu/profile/history.html.
The University of Georgia 2004 Fact Book (Electronic Version) retrieved May 24, 2005 from http://www.oir.uga.edu/factbks.htm.
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.
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.
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).
Anderson, E. (1978). A place on the corner. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Anderson, E. (1990). Streetwise: Race, class and change in an urban community. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Anderson, E. (1999). Code of the street: Decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city. New York: Norton.
Bell, M. J. (1983). The world from brown's lounge: An ethnography of black middle-class play. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. Harvard University Press Cambridge, Mass (translated by Richard Nice).
Bourgois, P.  (2003). In search of respect: Selling crack in El Barrio. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Corbin, J. & Strauss, A. (1990). Grounded theory research: Procedures, canons and evaluative criteria. Qualitative Sociology, 13, 4–21.
Crane, D. (2000). Fashion and its social agendas: Class, gender, and identity in clothing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dalrymple, T. (2005). Wrong from head to toe. National Review, 57, 30–33, 3/28/2005.
Drake, S. C. & Cayton, H. R. (1945). Black metropolis: A study of Negro life in a northern city. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
Duneier, M. (1992). Slim’s table: Race, respectability, and masculinity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Duneier, M. (1999). Sidewalk. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Edwards, O. (1997). Informal wear. Forbes, 159, S98–S99.
Essex, N. L. (2004). Student dress codes using zero tolerance? Education Digest, 70, 32–37, Oct 2004.
Feagin, J. (1991). The continuing significance of race: Antiblack discrimination in public places. American Sociological Review, 56, 101–116.
Feagin, J. & Sikes, M. (1994). Living with racism: The black middle class experience. Boston: Beacon Press.
Flynn, M. K. (2004). Success codes. U.S. News & World Report 11/8/2004, 137, pEE14, 1p, 1c.
Gans, H. J. (1962). The urban villagers: Group and class in the life of Italian-Americans. New York: Free Press of Glencoe (foreword by Erich Lindemann).
Glaser, B. & Strauss, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine Pub. Co.
Gottdiener, M. (1994). The social production of urban space (2nd ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press.
Grazian, D. (2003). Blue Chicago: The search for authenticity in urban blues clubs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Gwaltney, J. L. (1980). Drylongso: A self-portrait of black America. New York: Random House.
Hebdige, D.  (1994). Subculture: The meaning of style. New York: Routledge.
Jackson, J. L. (2001). Harlemworld: Doing race and class in contemporary America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lamont, M. & Molnar, V. (2001). How blacks use consumption to shape their collective identity: Evidence from marketing specialists. Journal of Consumer Culture, 1, 31–45.
Lamont, M. & Molnar, V. (2002). The study of boundaries in the social science. Annual Review of Sociology, 28, 167–195.
Lieberson, S. (2000). Matter of taste: How names, fashions, and culture change. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Liebow, E. (1967). Tally’s corner: A study of Negro streetcorner men. Boston: Little, Brown.
Lofland, L. H. (1973). A world of strangers: Order and action in urban public space. New York: Basic Books.
Lofland, L. H. (1998). The public realm: Exploring the city’s quintessential social territory. Hawthorne, N.Y.: Aldine de Gruyter.
Lloyd, R. (2004). The neighborhood in cultural production: Material and symbolic resources in the New Bohemia. City and Community, 3, 343–372.
May, R. A. B. & Pattillo-McCoy, M. (2000). Do you see what I see: Examining a collaborative ethnography. Qualitative Inquiry, 6, 65–87, March.
May, R. A. B. (2001a). Talking at Trena’s: Everyday conversation at an African American tavern. New York: University Press.
May, R. A. B. (2001b). The Sid Cartwright incident and more: An African American male’s interpretive narrative of interracial encounters at the University of Chicago. Studies in Symbolic Interaction, 24, 75–100.
May, R. A. B. (2003). “Flirting with boundaries”: A professor’s narrative tale contemplating research of the wild side. Qualitative Inquiry, 9, 442–65.
O’Donnell, P., Memran, M. & Stefanakos, V. (1999). No-jean scene. Newsweek 10/18/99, 134 (16), p6, 1/6p, 1c.
Oldenburg, R. (1997). The great good place. New York: Marlowe & Co.
Pain, R. (2001). Gender race, age and fear in the city. Urban Studies, 38, 899–913.
Park, R. E. & Burgess, E. W. (1924). Introduction to the science of sociology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Park, R. E., Burgess, E. W. & McKenzie, R. D. (1925). The city. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Pattillo-McCoy, M. (1999). Black picket fences: Privilege and peril among the black middle class. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Peterson, R. & Kern, R. (1996). Changing highbrow taste: From snob to omnivore. American Sociological Review, 61, 900–907.
Population & Demographics 2000. (2000) Athens-Clarke County Information, (Electronic Version). Retrieved May 20, 2005 from http://censtats.census.gov/data/GA/1701303436.pdf from the 2000 US from the US Census Bureau (Electronic Version) retrieved from http://factfinder.census.gov.
Prewitt, M. (1997). Ties no longer binding: ‘21’ club eases dress code permanently. Nation’s Restaurant News 2/10/97, 31, p6, 1/3p.
Rose, T. (1994). Black noise: Rap music and black culture in contemporary America. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.
Simmel, G. ( 1957). Fashion. American Journal of Sociology, 62, 541–58.
Simmel, G. ( 1971). The metropolis and mental life. In D. Levine (ed.), On individuality and social forms. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Steele, S. (1989). On being black and middle class. In G. Wolff (Ed.), The best American essays. New York: Ticknor & Fields.
Thrasher, F. M. (1936). The gang: A study of 1,313 gangs in Chicago (2nd ed.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Venkatesh, S. (2000). American project: The rise and fall of a modern ghetto. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wacquant, L. J. D. (2004). Body & soul: Notebooks of an apprentice boxer. New York: Oxford University Press.
Whyte, W. F. (1955). Street corner society: The social structure of an Italian slum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Willis, P. (1981). Learning to labor: How working class kids get working class jobs. New York: Columbia University Press.
Young Jr., A. (2004). The minds of marginalized black men: Making sense of mobility, opportunity, and future life chances. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Zielinski, D. and Guidera, D. (2005). Cracking the dress code. Presentations, 19, p26, 5p, 7.
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.
About this article
Cite this article
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
- Dress codes