Can black folks do anything without scrutiny?
The arrest of two black men sitting quietly in a Philadelphia Starbucks has set off a national discussion about whether there are any places or activities where race doesn’t color the experience. Even something as innocuous and common as waiting at Starbucks for a friend looks different when viewed through the lens of America’s ongoing race problem.
On social media, many white people expressed shock. Who hasn’t ducked into a local Starbucks to take advantage of its bathroom or internet or electrical outlets? But this simply is not the experience of many black people, myself included, who know all too well the pressure to buy something unwanted or unnecessary in order to avoid added scrutiny — a Black Tax, if you will.
And so well-meaning outrage aside, it’s time that white people in America get real about the way racism — including their own — reveals itself in social situations, usually off-camera.
Well-meaning outrage aside, it’s time that white people in America get real about the way racism — including their own — reveals itself in social situations, usually off-camera.
Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson has since issued an apology to the two men and vowed to internally evaluate his company’s corporate culture. Johnson then doubled down on this pledge by announcing that on May 29, 2018, around 8,000 U.S. locations of the franchise would be closed for anti-bias training.
The response to the announcement has been mixed, with some lauding the company for taking responsibility and attempting to address the incident while others questioned its sincerity, labeling it corporate spin.
“It’s great that they’re doing that but why weren’t [they] doing this before?” Dr. Anthea Butler, an associate professor of Religious and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania noted. Starbucks has long held itself as a progressive organization, although past attempts at racial sensitivity conversations were widely criticized. “By closing, rather than taking people off [in small groups] it’s trying to make the corporation look better than [they really are],” Butler said. “This is a PR stunt. Because if they wanted to do it they would’ve done it a long time ago.”
Historical context matters, notes Dr. Blair L.M. Kelley, an assistant dean at North Carolina State and the author of “Right to Ride.” This incident is much bigger than the actions of one biased manager or even Starbucks’ corporate culture. Black men, women and children “have been excluded from public space for over a century in different contexts and in different places around the country, including Philadelphia. When we look at the history of segregation we see that it was the attempt to put law and policy behind the practices of keeping black people out of public spaces that were coded white.”
The uncomfortable truth for white America is, again, that while this incident went viral, it is only remarkable because of how unremarkable it actually is. In the days immediately following the Philadelphia incident another video surfaced of a black man being denied entry into a Starbucks bathroom in southern California while a white man was given access without question.
The black community and other people of color have patiently explained the systemic roots of this very American problem for years. We have pleaded for understanding to no avail. We’ve protested in the streets only to be called troublemakers and have white America lecture us on what Martin Luther King Jr. would do. And yet King received the same pushback 60 years ago as Black Lives Matter does today. Every day we have to cope with a racist society that swears it’s not racist while treating us as second-class citizens.
Looking beyond Starbucks, the mistreatment and subsequent denials of our reality aren't simply frustrating. They hurt the black community in diverse and measurable ways, both psychologically and physically. A recent article in the New York Times Magazine highlighted America’s disparity in infant mortality, noting that “Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants — 11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies.”
The mistreatment and subsequent denials of our reality aren't simply frustrating. They hurt the black community in diverse and measurable ways, both psychologically and physically.
Can you guess why?
“Recently there has been growing acceptance of what has largely been, for the medical establishment, a shocking idea: For black women in America, an inescapable atmosphere of societal and systemic racism can create a kind of toxic physiological stress, resulting in conditions — including hypertension and pre-eclampsia — that lead directly to higher rates of infant and maternal death.”
The lived experience of millions of our citizens is actually killing black folks. But racism doesn’t require a white hood and a burning cross to thrive. It doesn’t even require overzealous police officers or a problematic coffee shop manager. All racism requires is people who refuse to believe that it’s real and therefore do nothing to stop it.
Elon James White is writer, performer and founder of This Week in Blackness, a multimedia digital platform dedicated to diversifying voices and news coverage within media. White has appeared on shows like Al Jazeera’s "Flashpoint," "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah," VH1’s "Black to the Future" and "The Rachel Maddow Show," and his commentary has been featured in outlets like Slate, Colorlines, BuzzFeed and The Root.