Though there have always been white anti-racist activists and allies, a great many number of white people have chosen to remain silent when witnessing instances of interpersonal and structural racism. Some of them haven’t even been consciously aware of the ways that racism is present in these interactions. But in our current reality where Neo-Nazis and KKK members are not only marching in the streets but also publicly being called “very fine people” by the president, lots of white folks are stepping up and realizing that they can longer be complicit in systems of racial oppression. This is a really good thing—and yet we’ve got so much further to go.
There is a lot that is troubling about this case. The most obvious is that people go to Starbucks and hang out, use the WiFi, meet friends, use the bathroom, and never buy anything, all the time—without being arrested. While we don’t have the demographic data of Starbucks’ clientele, we can assume that the aforementioned group includes white people. So it is noteworthy, and questionable, that something about two black men doing the very same thing would cause the store manager such anxiety that she would feel the need to call 911. Who knows what she conveyed during her call but she must have been pretty frightened or irritated because there are at least five officers who came to the scene (which can be seen in the above video). But isn’t it interesting that not a single customer who was there has come forward to corroborate her version of events that these men were causing a disturbance, and were politely asked multiple times but refused to leave?
The charges against the men were eventually dropped. Philadelphia police commissioner Richard Ross has offered his own video statement about what happened, and his commentary dramatically differs from what customers are saying. Not only does he say that the two men refused to leave and were defiant toward both the store manager and store supervisor, he says they displayed “attitude” and insulted the officers about their pay.
Ross went on to defend policing in Philadelphia by saying that he, as a black man, is well aware of implicit bias and sent his officers to educational sites like the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. This seems like nothing more than a convenient way to justify the officers’ behaviors. As a black person listening to Ross, it also feels a lot like internalized racism.
Black people, like anyone else in America, are not immune to unconsciously supporting white supremacy and projecting irrational fear and mistrust of other black people. While we don’t know what’s in Ross’ heart and mind, it wouldn’t be unusual for him, too, to believe without question that these two men were up to no good. It is a sad reality that black Americans often see ourselves through the lens of whiteness and that it takes intentional work to undo the unspeakable damage that white supremacy has done to us. It is also a fact that racism is deeply ingrained and intertwined with police culture. To that end, Ross’ words mean very little in helping us to meaningfully unpack this incident.
But more importantly, no one else has offered the version of events as told by Ross, except the officers. And while these men are being described with the most stereotypical of tropes that describe black people’s behavior (rude, aggressive, defiant), especially black men, the video shows the exact opposite—two men quietly being led out of the store in handcuffs, without seeming to make much of a fuss. Of course, it is possible that the men were annoyed and asserted their right to be in the store. After all, white people get to be out in the world all the time without raising suspicion and alarm. And while businesses do reserve the right to refuse service to anyone and have the right to ask people to leave when they so choose, the fact that there seems to be zero evidence to support the fact that these men were belligerent and didn’t need to be dragged out of the store should give us pause.
Starbucks is now doing serious damage control as this becomes a public relations nightmare for the company. The store manager has “left” the company (which gives us no indication if she was fired or quit). Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson has apologized and is now saying that the company will institute implicit bias training. Meanwhile, the past two days have seen growing protests at the Philadelphia location, with calls to boycott a company that many see as anti-black. Is Starbucks anti-black? Without a doubt, the answer is yes. But this is not because the company is intentionally anti-black. Instead, it is because it is an organization made up of human beings around the world who have learned anti-blackness from the society in which they have been socialized.
Unfortunately, there is not a corner of the globe that white supremacy has not touched. We live in a world that is anti-black and there are examples of this all around us. That’s why black people are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, even when we commit the same crimes as whites—or when we don’t do anything at all. That’s why black children don’t get the benefit of being seen as children like white children do and get suspended from schools at higher rates for the very same behaviors. That’s why a 14-year-old black boy’s presence at their doorstep frightened a white couple so much that they shot at him instead of offering him help to get to school. It’s why two black men simply hanging out at Starbucks waiting for their friend was enough to get them arrested.
And it’s why black people often justify and participate in anti-blackness ourselves. This is not just a Starbucks problem. This is not just an American problem, though how racism and white supremacy show up in our country is certainly unique to our culture. This is a global problem—and one that won’t be easily fixed by training Starbucks baristas on implicit bias nor sending police officers to the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. You can’t train people into changing. Training without organizational and cultural change that supports different behaviors and actions is ineffective. Until our society and world begins to value black lives just as we do white ones, we’ll only have more of the same.