Chick-fil-A protest tastes surprisingly foul

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Most Americans are inclined to do the right thing as long as it doesn't cost too much or come wrapped in too much inconvenience.

Had I been around in the 1950s, I like to think I would've risked arrest at segregated department store lunch counters along with others determined to overturn the Jim Crow laws that were strangling American democracy.

I flatter myself with this heroic fantasy while conceding something shameful. In 1979, I used to eat at Sambo's in the San Fernando Valley, because you could get a three-stack pancake breakfast with eggs and bacon for under $3. Despite the restaurant chain's racially incendiary name, I didn't join what was then an informal boycott. I was too broke to be virtuous in those days.

Fast forward many decades and I am no longer broke or living in Los Angeles. Sambo's went out of business a long time ago, but this wouldn't be America if a restaurant chain -- be it Denny's or Panera -- didn't pick up the slack by offending potential customers.

These days, there's a lot of consternation about Chick-fil-A. Until two weeks ago, I was unfamiliar with the chain and had never patronized it. Recently, its founder and CEO, Dan Cathy, ruffled liberal feathers by announcing his opposition to same-sex marriage.

A staunch conservative who donates to causes that reflect his interpretation of biblical principles, Mr. Cathy is never going to wave the rainbow flag. Anyone who keeps his restaurants closed on Sundays out of respect for the Sabbath isn't going to lose sleep, either, at the threat of a boycott by those who disagree with him.

Although Mr. Cathy has been insistent in his affirmation of traditional marriage, he hasn't indicated that anyone who comes to his restaurants be treated with anything less than respect and dignity. He expressed an opinion, a right guaranteed to all Americans. He didn't advocate breaking any laws by discriminating against customers based on their sexual orientation.

That's why comparisons between Chick-fil-A and the businesses that refused to serve blacks in the first half of the 20th century are so disingenuous. Blacks would've jumped for joy to have dealt with the racist equivalent of a Dan Cathy in 1957. At least he would've served them coffee and let them use the bathrooms.

A couple of generations ago, most white businesses didn't want black patronage, so they had to be reminded that they were constitutionally obligated to treat everyone equally and not refuse service based on their ignorant prejudices.

Those lunch counter protests weren't about changing hearts and minds. They were about overthrowing an unjust social order and repealing laws that allowed Americans to ignore the promise of the Constitution for all its citizens. The sit-ins and boycotts of that era were about serious issues -- not pique at the racist opinions of business owners.

Last week, opportunists on the right used the Chick-fil-A controversy to rail against what they called "liberal intolerance." The so-called Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day swelled the coffers of the restaurant chain. There were lines out the door and down the block in many cities as Americans expressed support of Mr. Cathy's right to free speech, which was never seriously threatened anyway.

A few days later, there were counter-demonstrations at Chick-fil-A restaurants across the country as supporters of same-sex marriage staged kiss-ins. The restaurant chain made a lot of money that day, too, so Mr. Cathy ended up benefiting from a fake controversy in ways he never imagined. Only in America!

Meanwhile, I've visited the Chick-fil-A in Homestead three times in recent weeks because I love its grilled chicken sandwich. I'm also impressed with the restaurant's cleanliness and the professionalism of the staff. A gay couple openly held hands at a table across from me and no one hassled them or took much notice.

If only Chick-fil-A's competitors were just as "intolerant," the net effect would be edible fast food and respectful service and not the greasy horror we currently tolerate in America.

Am I trying to rationalize patronizing a restaurant that plows money into causes I don't support? There's probably a little bit of that at work here, but I don't think a CEO's opinion matters as much as the company's actual practice when it comes to treating all customers with respect.

Besides, most CEOs are unapologetically conservative. How many "progressive" companies and CEOs are there in the world? Not many.

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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