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Starbucks Confronts The Weight Of America's Racist History

The racial weight of history chipped away one company at a time.

Starbucks corporation has been in the news lately, but it’s not for the introduction of a new coffee blend or flavored expresso. Starbucks has made national headlines because the actions of an employee reminded us that there is no such thing as a safe space for black people in racist America.

On April 12th, two black men were sitting in a Starbucks located in Center City, Philadelphia. A white patron by the name of Melissa Depino, began recording the incident that went viral. In a nutshell, the two men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, were sitting quietly in the store, but did not order anything because they were waiting for one of their business partners to show up. One of the men asked to use the bathroom and that is when a Starbucks employee asked them to leave. The men refused and repeated that they didn’t want to order anything until their friend arrived. The police were called and a quiet discussion with the men occurred. The men aired their grievances about what happened as unjust and unfair.

The police listened and decided the best way to handle the situation was to place the men in handcuffs, humiliate them in front of everyone and later charge them with trespassing. It is important to note - as the two black men were in process of being taken out of the store, their friend, who was a white man, arrived and clearly expressed his anger that his friends were mistreated and victims of discrimination.

Thankfully, no one was hurt but the damage was done. What happened to these two black men is a result of a Starbucks employee putting into practice a racist idea - that black people are not equal to white people and, therefore, should be treated differently. That is what it comes down to. Melissa Depino made it clear in her poignant observation when she said: “All of the other white people are wondering why it’s never happened to us when we do the same thing.”

Although the racist idea that some people harbor in believing white people are superior to black people is rooted in fiction, America has worked very hard to create structures, perceptions and biases to perpetuate the belief that we are different from each other. The result in promoting this toxic form of human interaction has been brutality, domestic terrorism, racism, inequality and widespread discrimination against us.

The Starbucks employee had the weight of this history that pushed her to believe that she was acting in the best interest of the store. The weight of this history told her that non-paying black people, let alone two black males dressed casually, should invoke a white response of impatience and intolerance of shared space – regardless of how momentary it may be. The Starbucks employee probably felt she had the implicit support of the white patrons there to call the police because black disposal by non-violent or violent means is the price to protect whiteness.

Since the incident occurred one week ago, the two men have spoken publicly about the incident and expressed dismay about the turn of events. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson has apologized publicly and met Mr. Robinson and Mr. Nelson personally (I hope they pay the men for the trauma caused by this incident). Also, in an effort to show a desire to grow from this incident, Starbucks stated that on May 29th, 8,000 Starbucks locations are going to close down in order “to conduct racial-bias education geared toward preventing discrimination in our stores."

Starbucks will have an opportunity to really impact thousands of employees and other companies if they go about this training the right way. During this training, they should make it very clear that racial discrimination will result in immediate termination. Starbucks should provide everyone an opportunity for interactive discussion, along with an updated manual by experts that focus on helping people identify their biases and learn how to be active in their own humanity by pushing out racist thoughts and ideas because it’s normal to have them in a racist society. These training sessions should be ongoing and mandatory. And Starbucks should notify their employees that they will hold themselves accountable in improving their inclusionary hiring practices and creating more partnerships and investment in communities disproportionately impacted by racism.

I believe good can come out of this unfortunate situation if there is a sincere commitment by Starbucks to be more responsible, sensitive and proactive in creating a company that sees discrimination as unacceptable and backing it up with policy, money and training. Starbucks may not be able to change the world, but they can help make their corner of it a better place.

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