On Tuesday, May 29 global coffee chain Starbucks closed down around 8,000 of its stores in the U.S. for “unconscious bias” training. On the very same day, ABC cancelled its highly rated reboot “Roseanne” over the sitcom star’s racist Twitter rant (or as she called it, a “joke”) about former presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett.
While Roseanne Barr may be finally facing the consequences for her actions, the same cannot be said for millions of others in this country. Indeed, something very ugly is happening in our nation right now with respect to black Americans. And that ugliness cannot be swept under the carpet anymore by the rest of America.
Obviously this race problem did not begin or end in a Philadelphia coffee shop (or the social media feed of a sitcom star), but the public arrest of two black men sitting quietly in a Starbucks in April is yet more evidence of a situation that can no longer be ignored. To tackle this problem, however, we have to understand its origins: What we are confronting in 2018 is in fact the continuation of an American legacy dating back to the 18th century.
As president and slave owner Thomas Jefferson noted in his “Notes on the State of Virginia” in the early 1780s:
"It will probably be asked, why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expense of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race."
Jefferson, like many of his white peers, considered blacks inferior to whites and feared a race war would ensue if they were emancipated. Jefferson believed that slaves would retaliate against their former masters and thus embraced the idea of "colonization": arranging for transportation of free blacks to Africa, regardless of their birthplace. Slavery, Jefferson wrote, was “demoralizing to both White and Black society.”
From the beginning, the Founding Fathers believed not only that slaves were inherently less than, but that they would stage an uprising if they were ever allowed to be free. This sense of superiority, mixed with a racially charged fear of free African Americans, continues to inform society today.
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Here’s the point: whether in a college dorm in New Haven or a CVS parking lot in Milwaukee or a Waffle House in North Carolina, black citizens are clearly being singled out, attacked, violated and arrested by police for just simply existing in public. Several of these most recent incidences stemmed from anonymous phone calls from “concerned” white citizens attempting to use the police as a personal protection detail to guard against minorities. (Resulting, I might add, in no repercussions or fines.)
Sometimes, as happened in Philadelphia, these incidents have been turned into learning experiences. After a store manager called the police on two men sitting in a store located in the mostly white upper middle-class Rittenhouse suburb of Philadelphia, the CEO of Starbucks apologized and met with the pair. Then Starbucks acted: It set up a foundation for the two men to help others in Philadelphia, and ordered a mass employee training session on racial bias. It accepted responsibility for the mistake and took action to try and fix it.
Often, however, the outcome has been far less positive. In April, police officers in an Alabama Waffle House wrestled a woman to the ground, ultimately exposing her breast. Waffle House defended the employee, prompting Dr. Bernice King, the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to call for a national boycott of the chain. In May, days after a young black Yale student had the police called on her for sleeping in her shared dorm space, she said the university had yet to apologize to her, or take disciplinary action against the white student who called the police.
And on March 18, an unarmed, 22-year-old black man named Stephon Clark was shot to death by police in his grandmother’s California backyard. Videos of the incident show it took several minutes for the officers involved to administer aid as Clark bled out in front of them.
It doesn’t matter who you are or what you are doing — being black in public in America remains a potentially dangerous activity. Just ask the young black people in California who were greeted by police cars outside their Airbnb after a neighbor called the police. Their crime? Not smiling enough. Or ask the black women at a country club in Dover, Pennsylvania, who had the cops called on them because they were playing too slow.
I could go on and on and on, but the pattern is clear. Now the question is, has something changed? Is it a coincidence that these incidents seem to be increasing in the weeks and months since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017?
I don’t think it is. It seems clear to me, at least, that something is newly amiss. That our president’s tacit and not so subtle embrace of racism has become a cancer that is eating away at our national psyche at an alarming rate. The fire may have been set by the men who founded this country, but this presidency is feeding the flames.
There is a reason why white extremists like Richard Spencer have been some of Trump’s biggest fans. Worse, in the wake of Roseanne’s rant, the president refused to condemn her tweet, and instead asked why he had not been given an apology by ABC.
It reminds me of Charlottesville, Virginia last summer, when Trump made excuses for the acts of white extremists and racists. His constant attacks on immigrants of color, and his reference to African nations as “shithole” countries, has created an environment that emboldens white supremacy and racism. It is now an everyday occurrence that I fear too many white Americans, even progressive ones, are becoming numb to.
Black and white Americans are living two very different realities in 2018. And for all our talk of unconscious bias, what we’re seeing right now is really not unconscious at all. When a woman calls the police on a group of black picnickers in Oakland, that is conscious bias. It is using the police to humiliate and silence black citizens, and to label them as inherently suspicious simply because of the color of their skin.
Black and white Americans are living two very different realities in 2018. And for all our talk of unconscious bias, what we’re seeing right now is really not unconscious at all.
In May, Childish Gambino’s music video, “This Is America” went viral due in large part to its powerful indictment of violence, especially violence against black people. But it also posed an uncomfortable question: Is this really what America has become?
Sadly, it seems the answer is this is who America has always been.
Sophia A. Nelson is an NBC BLK contributor and author of “E Pluribus One: Reclaiming Our Founder’s Vision for a United America” (January 2017).