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The Sensitivity Apparat

On the scourge of ‘human rights’ commissions

Feb 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 20 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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 Most people live in total ignorance of “human rights” or “civil rights” commissions, until they run afoul of them. They began popping up all over the country in the 1960s and ’70s, and now nearly every state and good-sized municipality has one. In theory, they were set up to handle the flood of discrimination cases that was expected to overwhelm the legal system after the flurry of Great Society legislation. Local human rights commissions were expected to resolve these disputes quickly in administrative tribunals. In practice, however, the commissions have never really served enough of a purpose to justify their existence. They’ve devolved into bureaucratic star chambers with the power to ruin your life and run you out of business.

And so, on September 6, a representative of the District of Columbia Office of Human Rights walked into The Pug and handed Tony a letter that began: 

It was brought to the attention of the D.C. Office of Human Rights on September 5, 2012, that your establishment, The Pug, was displaying a racially offensive sign which advertised a cocktail for customers’ purchase. Specifically, the sign stated: Marion Berry’s (sic) Dirty Asian Punch. Below the wording was displayed a caricature of an individual with slanted eyes and protruding teeth. We believe that such a sign is not demonstrative of the shared values and practices that make the District a fully inclusive environment for all residents and visitors. Additionally, we believe the statement violates the D.C. Human Rights Act. 

The letter was cc’d to Tommy Wells, who is the city council representative for D.C.’s Ward 6, where The Pug is located, as well as to the heads of a host of D.C. city agencies—the Office of Community Affairs, the Office of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, and the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA). Tony had 72 hours to remove the sign, and was further informed that first-time human rights offenders could be fined as much as $10,000. As near as Tony can figure, he landed on the radar of the D.C. Office of Human Rights after Mike DeBonis, a city reporter for the Washington Post and patron of The Pug, tweeted a picture of the sign two days before. 

If Tony’s sign seems egregiously offensive, some backstory is in order. Last April, D.C. city council member Marion Barry—yes, that Marion Barry, the former mayor whom D.C.’s Ward 8 residents keep electing despite his having been caught on camera by the FBI smoking crack with his girlfriend—got himself in hot water for his own racist ideas about civic renewal. “We got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops,” Barry said in front of a local television news camera. “They ought to go. I’m going to say that right now.” 

Barry’s remark brought widespread condemnation, but less than three weeks later Barry was in trouble again for making racial remarks about Asians. “If you go to the hospital now, you’ll find a number of immigrants who are nurses, particularly from the Philippines,” said Barry. “And no offense, but let’s grow our own teachers, let’s grow our own nurses, and so that we don’t have to go scrounging in our community clinics and other kinds of places, having to hire people from somewhere else.” No less than the Philippine ambassador felt compelled to respond, “Council member Barry’s penchant for blaming Asians, who only want to work for their American dream, fuels racism, discrimination, and violence.”

Barry’s comments were not exactly small news locally. It’s safe to say nearly everyone bellying up to the bar at The Pug understood right off that Tony was making a joke at the expense of Barry’s racism, not making fun of Asians, when he posted the sign advertising “The Ward 8 Special,” namely, “Marion Berry’s Dirty Asian Summer Punch!” So Tony fired off a response to Gustavo F. Velasquez, the director of the D.C. Office of Human Rights. “I wrote a letter back saying, ‘I received your warning and I fully intend to take the sign down, but is there any way you can send me a copy of the letter you sent Marion Barry after he made his comments on Asians?’ ” he says. Aping the language of the letter addressed to him, Tony wrote to Velasquez, “I believe [Barry’s] comments would fall under the umbrella of making a certain people feel ‘objectionable, unwelcome, unacceptable, or undesirable.’ ” Not surprisingly, no copy of such a letter addressed to Barry has been forthcoming. 

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