Donald Merckle, a South Carolina-based musician, wrote a viral post about an encounter with a racist restaurant owner. The post provoked a major backlash against the popular Main Street Public House in Columbia, S.C., prompting the restaurant to shut down for several days and distance itself from its co-owner.
Photo: Courtesy of Donald Merckle

For weeks, Don Merckle wondered what he might have done to make the owner of Main Street Public House confide in him about his racism.

Was it his tattoos? His trucker hat? His beard?

As Merckle, a musician based in Columbia, S.C., tells it, he was in a bar talking to co-owner Jimmy Latulipe about possible shows at the restaurant when Latulipe, unprovoked, offered this assurance.

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“Jimmy let me know that I shouldn’t worry about playing there because he is going to keep the ‘nigs’ out of his place,” Merckle wrote on Facebook weeks later.

“I was dumbstruck and thought I must have misheard him. I incredulously asked him to repeat himself. I believe my exact words were ‘What the F- did you just say??’” Merckle continued. “And [bandmate] Brian, sure of what he heard, immediately told him that was NOT ok. Jimmy, sensing his error, immediately tried to back pedal. He apologized then added ‘…but you know what I mean.’”

The incident stuck with Merckle for weeks before he wrote about it on Facebook. As he told The Root, it took him a while to process what happened—and decide whether he was responsible.

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“I was extremely surprised that he would assume that we were together on this or something, that we were in the same club. I likened it to a Klansman putting his arm around me and just, you know, assuming that we’re the same person,” said Merckle. “In truth, I’ve come to think it was just because I was white.”

While Merckle, who manages the band Don Merckle and the Blacksmiths, said that he told his friends and other musicians in the area about the incident as soon as it happened, that realization—that it was his whiteness that made Latulipe feel that comfortable—made him angry, and he decided to speak out.

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“Even though I was telling people personally, I didn’t feel like it was getting anywhere,” Merckle said, adding that he was confident that people in the community would want to know how the owner of a popular restaurant operated.

“It just felt like it was going to be business as usual, and I couldn’t live with that,” he said.

So Merckle took to Facebook on June 23 and laid out the story in detail, including a bizarre exchange during which a friend of Latulipe’s tried to rationalize his words.

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“You guys have it all wrong. Jimmy’s cool with niggas; he just wants niggers out of his place. You know, with a hard ‘r,’” said the unidentified man.

He wanted it to make an impact, and it did. Not only did the Columbia community respond to the news, but so did national outlets. Since being posted last Friday, the post has garnered nearly 2,000 shares, prompting backlash against the Main Street Public House that was so furious, its management placed Latulipe on “indefinite leave of absence from our restaurant without pay,” according to the restaurant’s Facebook page (what that means for a co-owner of the establishment is unclear).

A lot of attention is paid to white people who commit egregious and dangerous acts of racism—and rightfully so. As many others have written, both at The Root and elsewhere, these are acts of escalation of the most pedestrian “offenses.” Not only are they stark reminders for black people and other people of color that they simply don’t belong in white spaces, but they’re also dangerous and life-threatening: Data clearly shows that law enforcement officers throughout the country are more likely to kill black people than they are other people.

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So Merckle’s act, albeit small, serves as a refreshing counterpoint to those stories—a white person airing another white man’s dirty laundry in an effort to hold him accountable and keep the community safe.

The way Merckle sees it, white people have an obligation to call out and expose the racists who reveal themselves.

“I think more white people should talk about it,” said Merckle. “[White people] should expose. .. those in the community who are actively being racist in their practice.

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“[Latulipe] made it clear to me ... his business practice was to keep certain black people out of his establishment,” he added. “It was as if he was trying to make me feel better about that, and he was completely wrong.”

Merckle added that the response to his post has been “a really incredible and encouraging show of force,” but, he added, “as a white person, saying something and being praised for it is completely different than a black person who has been saying it for years.”

While Merckle is uncomfortable with receiving praise for calling out Latulipe, he knows that for him, keeping quiet wasn’t an option.

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“Silence is common,” he said. “Being silent about it wasn’t going to change anything.”