Students at Brown University extracted an apology from a blue-collar bar after a soon-to-be McKinsey consultant accused its employees of racism, prompting a student boycott and a shakedown from the school's diversity office.
The Graduate Center Bar apologized on April 27 for removing three black students who were roughhousing in line, after one of the students, Okezie Okoro, confronted the bouncer who told them to knock it off. The confrontation took place on April 7 and occurred after the bouncer let them inside. When Okoro gave the bouncer grief for reprimanding his friends, an argument ensued, culminating in the students' ejection from the bar.
A week later, Okoro posted on social media a 2,000-word denunciation of the bar, replete with a "content warning" and a list of demands. The post accused the bouncer of racism and attacked the bar's manager, Susan Yund, for dismissing that accusation.
"When we students voice concerns that someone has been harmed," Okoro wrote, "we expect at the very least a response that attempts to deepen understanding."
The bar capitulated, sending Okoro a fawning apology that outlined the steps it was taking "to be diverse, queer, and safe for all."
"We should have had policies in place that would have made you feel safer and heard when you took issue with the situation," the bar told Okoro. "We should have engaged with you more respectfully, patiently, and compassionately when you disagreed with us."
Okoro, a senior at Brown University and the president of the school's Black Consulting Initiative, will be working as a McKinsey analyst upon graduation, according to his LinkedIn profile. Starting salaries at the prestigious consultancy typically top $100,000.
The apology, which Okoro posted on Instagram, promised "de-escalation training" and the "addition of bar cameras," as well as updates to the bar's harassment policies. Those commitments came six months after the bar reopened with reduced capacity limits and days after the bar's managers met with Okoro and Brown vice president for institutional equity and diversity Sylvia Carey-Butler, according to the Brown Daily Herald.
Housed in the basement of an undergraduate dormitory, the bar is run by blue-collar locals and depends on the university for survival. It requested the sit-down amid a student boycott organized by Okoro, who told the Daily Herald he hoped his campaign would be "restorative."
Okoro, Carey-Butler, and the Graduate Center Bar did not respond to requests for comment.
The episode is the latest example of how privileged students weaponize race against less privileged service workers, often with the backing of college administrators. At Smith College, a janitor was placed on leave after he called security on a black student eating lunch in a closed dorm. At Oberlin College, students and faculty protested a local bakery for calling the police on a black shoplifter who'd assaulted a clerk. The protests led to Oberlin suspending its purchasing agreement with the bakery—and to a lawsuit that forced the college to pay $11 million in damages.
That sort of riposte seems unlikely for the Graduate Center Bar, which is still reeling from the pandemic. Because the bar rents space from the university, it is required to comply with Brown's COVID restrictions, some of the strictest in the Ivy League. The university closed the bar in March 2020 and did not let it reopen until November 2021, by which point vaccines had been available for almost a year. Several bartenders filed for unemployment while the bar was closed, the Daily Herald reported.
It is unclear how rowdy Okoro was being in line: Though the future McKinsey analyst claims he was "play-fighting (without physical contact)," Yund said the antics went beyond "merely tapping each other on the shoulder."
"In the narrow hallway that is the GCB's entrance it can be dangerous if people are moving their arms or elbows around unexpectedly," she emailed Okoro after the incident. "We know this from experience."
That didn't satisfy Okoro, who ridiculed Yund's email in his post. The bouncer's reaction, he said, "was a manifestation of respectability politics and shows how black people often have to withhold from expression in order to comfort and conform."
It could also show that the bar takes safety seriously. Rhode Island has one of the strictest fire codes in the nation, the legacy of a nightclub fire that killed 100 people and injured 230 more. Since the bar is tucked away in a basement, alums told the Washington Free Beacon, it enforces strict capacity limits and generally has a long line, which requires careful crowd control in the cramped corridors of the dorm. Pictures of the bar posted on Brown's website confirm the tight confines.
The boycott began on April 13 and lasted a week and half. Okoro's Instagram post announcing it was shared over 700 times, he told the Daily Herald, suggesting a number of students participated in the boycott.
But on other social media platforms, Okoro's demands met with derision—especially his call for the "indefinite suspension of the door person" who told him to cut it out.
"Imagine very reasonably being kicked from a bar bc you're dicking around and then being an ass about it…then using your bruised ego to try to get a working class Brown employee fired," one user posted on Dear Blueno, an anonymous message board for Brown students. "You literally are pissed that you got corrected in public and now you wanna fuck up this guy's life over it?"
"Why argue with the bouncer after getting let in?" another user asked. "That would get you thrown out of most bars. Either the kid is an idiot, or he caused a scene because he wants to be the center of attention."
Okoro nonetheless demanded an "apology to the affected students," which he described as "an integral step to rectifying the harm committed." That harm, Okoro said, was nothing short of existential.
"As a fourth-year black student, with significant academic and extracurricular engagement at Brown, it is discouraging to experience this in a Brown University space," Okoro wrote. "My investment in and experience at the school can go unrecognized and erased, revealing the only thing that matters: my blackness."