December 2, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Racism in 1980s clubs – the door policy!

4 min read
1980s night clubs operated a high degree of racism when it came to their door policy excluding black youth from entering as Tony McMahon discovers
1980s door policy clubs racism

Recently watched a 1983 report on racism in Liverpool clubs in the 1980s. Two groups of youth – one white and one black – tested the door policy at a club on Duke Street with the black group turned away for not having tickets while the white group went in ticketless. I knew that club well and had many great nights there. But…must admit…never saw many black youth. Though apparently Jermaine Jackson was once a guest. And Sister Sledge. So, I’m guessing if you were famous, rich, and black – you got in. But if you were from Toxteth, down the road, then the door might be harder to negotiate.

There were a small number of clubs and bars that let everybody in including black, Asian and LGBT youth. A good example being Kirklands on Hardman Street. This was more a “wine bar” than a club but there was dancing and music. It was also achingly hip. But the great thing about Kirlands was – it was very, very mixed. In sharp contrast down on Duke Street, you could have been in an all-white suburb of apartheid South Africa at that time.

It was quite shocking as a university undergraduate to arrive in Liverpool in 1981 from London and notice that for a city with a large black population, I saw hardly any black faces in the middle of town. It was almost as if an invisible line was drawn between Toxteth and the city centre over which any black youth travelling would be under immediate suspicion. This de facto ghettoisation ironically fostered a very vibrant club scene in Toxteth though the character of the venues was very different from the plush places on Duke Street. Run down early Victorian mansions converted into clubs. I have a vague memory of going to one place that seemed to be in the process of being demolished. I mean the back wall was missing.

Ten years ago, I co-wrote the biography of Coventry professional boxing champ Errol Christie who experienced racism in night clubs many times. The door policy at Tiffany’s in the centre of Coventry being particularly irksome on occasion. Errol, who has now sadly died, told me about a couple of scraps he had with bouncers. One I remember involved a bow-tied thug with a bleach blonde bubble perm that was the preferred hairdo of many male racists in the 1980s.

FIND OUT MORE: Racism in 1980s Coventry night clubs – the door policy!

In 1982, the Coventry Committee Against Racism tried to force the closure of a club called Shades, allegedly operating a “colour bar”. The club denied this but did make an undertaking in court not to discriminate, knowingly or otherwise, in future. In the same year, a black journalist claimed to have been barred from entering a Conservative Club in Walsall to cover a visit by the Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine to the area.

Attempts to expose and tackle the colour bar door policy operating in 1980s night clubs was met with predictable hostility. Those campaigners challenging racist bouncers dubbed trouble makers and muck rakers. Including, it should be said, by The Guardian newspaper back in 1980s which accused the Commission for Racial Equality of being “riddled with reverse racism”. See the letter from the CRE in response below. Bet the liberals on that newspaper would rather forget that!

So what were the police doing about all this? Don’t make me laugh! In the 1980s, there were no chief constables wringing their hands on TV promising to improve policing of minority communities. Quite the opposite. You can look up comments on race made by the Chief Constable of Merseyside Ken Oxford on this blog that will stun and amaze if you’re a younger visitor. But it was way more sinister than that. There were members of the National Front and other extreme Right groups in the police. Which explains why assaults and even murders of black and Asian youth were routinely dismissed as having “no racial motive”.

DISCOVER: Shocking racism in the early 1980s

When the Anti-Nazi League applied for a temporary drinks license to hold an event at Digbeth Civic Hall in April 1979, it was turned down by the magistrates on the recommendation of the police. The event was protesting an alleged colour bar at the Pollyanna’s night club in Birmingham.

Lord Denning – Thatcher’s favourite judge and hammer of the trades unions – later ruled in favour of Pollyanna’s stating that there was no evidence of a colour bar operating with its door policy.

Though plenty of other venues did change their door policy with this working mens’ club in 1979 admitting it had operated a colour bar but would no longer do so. It’s hard to imagine a club for working class people in a movement dedicated to combatting workplace racism operating a colour bar – but there you have it!

1980s night clubs operated a high degree of racism when it came to their door policy excluding black youth from entering

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