Old South racism lives on in Big Easy's Bourbon Street

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The Independent US

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, the drinks flow freely and the good times come easy. Depending, that is, on the colour of your skin. The famous thoroughfare that runs through the heart of the city's historic French Quarter has long drawn tourists in search of strong cocktails, relaxed by-laws that permit drinking in the street and the chance to flash one's chest for the prize of a string of gaudy beads.

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, the drinks flow freely and the good times come easy. Depending, that is, on the colour of your skin. The famous thoroughfare that runs through the heart of the city's historic French Quarter has long drawn tourists in search of strong cocktails, relaxed by-laws that permit drinking in the street and the chance to flash one's chest for the prize of a string of gaudy beads.

But the street's reputation as a bastion of bawdy fun has been damaged by a report that suggests there is still more than a whiff of Old South attitudes in the city known as the Big Easy. An undercover study found black drinkers at Bourbon Street bars were likely to be over-charged for drinks and hassled more by doormen than white customers.

"Man, it's as if New Orleans was stuck in the 1950s and 1960s, in terms of race relations," Mayor Ray Nagin told reporters. "We come together for Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest; we like to party together. But on economic issues, school issues, things like that, we're still far apart."

The study was commissioned by Mr Nagin's office amid claims of racial discrimination after the death of a black college student, Levon Jones, who was involved in a scuffle with white bouncers at a Bourbon Street establishment, the Razzoo Bar and Patio, on New Year's Eve.

Although the broad findings of the report have been published this year, the city had declined to "name and shame" the bars and clubs found to have been discriminating. These were made public this week only after a copy was passed to the local newspaper.

The newspaper, The Times-Picayune, said the undercover study, using black and white testers, found that at 15 bars on Bourbon Street black customers were either charged more for drinks or were hassled by doormen.

At the Tropical Isle, for instance, a black tester was charged $8 (£4.36) for a Long Island Iced Tea for which his white colleague, buying his separately, was charged $6.75. At The Blues Club the price ranged from $9 to $7.25, depending on whether the tester was black or white.

At other clubs, black customers were treated less hospitably than white customers and were often told to tuck in their shirts or take off their baseball caps. The study found the greatest disparity was at the 735 Club where the black testers were charged a $10 fee at the door with the promise that the cover charge would include unlimited free drinks. Inside, they were told there was no such deal and all drinks would have to be paid for.

The reaction of management at the bars named in the report has ranged from outrage to denial. "You've got to be kidding," said Tracy Lemarie, head bartender at Fritzel's Bar, which was accused of charging a black tester $1 more than his white colleague. "I just don't believe that. I don't care who you are, what colour you are or what language you speak, and I'm on my girls all the time about that. If it happens again, I hope people tell us about it and those employees will be gone." Larry Bagneris, the executive director of the city's human relations commission, said yesterday that 300 French Quarter employees recently attended the first of three sensitivity training seminars.

He told The Independent: "It's not good for our reputation but what has been good is the response. People are committed to coming together and finding out what is wrong. We got a black eye but every black eye can heal."

Mr Jones died after he and friends tried to enter the Razzoo Bar. Details are disputed but a lawsuit said Mr Jones intervened to help a friend who was refused entry. Mr Jones was pinned to the ground by doormen and died. A post-mortem examination showed that he was suffocated by a choke hold. Three men have been charged.

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