Starbucks Offends and then Takes Right Steps

Starbucks, which has enjoyed a nationwide reputation as a leader on social issues, has acted swiftly to correct the missteps of an employee in Philadelphia that plunged the Seattle-based coffee giant into the abyss of racism and ignited another round of national discussion about racial bias

Starbucks CEO, Kevin Johnson, flew to The City of Brotherly Love to personally apologize to two black men—Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson-- who were unjustly arrested in Philadelphia two weeks ago on charges of “trespassing,” while they waited for a business partner. 

Charges were dropped for lack of evidence, and Johnson wisely announced that Starbucks would close 8,000 stores on the afternoon of May 29 to provide “racial bias training.” He also said that Starbucks’ policies would be reviewed so as to avoid similar situations in the future. Credit to Starbucks for closing its stores at the expense of substantial profits.

As it stands, Starbucks’ policy instructs employees to call the police in circumstances involving “threats or disturbances.” Nelson and Robinson, both 23 years old, posed no threat and caused no disturbance when, on April 12, they entered a Starbucks store in the upscale, predominately white, Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. 

When they declined to place an order, the white woman manager asked them to leave. Nelson and Robinson refused to leave because, they told an employee, they were simply meeting a business partner.  Starbucks, it will be recalled, promotes itself as a place for people to gather and linger for hours, without purchasing products.  A coffee house as a venue for promoting social interaction, much like a bar, was the genius of former Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, who revolutionized the coffee business and made his company a worldwide phenomenon. 

The employee, no longer with Starbucks, called Philadelphia police, who promptly responded and arrested Nelson and Robinson. Within minutes, their partner arrived, only to find his colleagues in handcuffs. 

“It was completely inappropriate to engage the police,” Johnson said. Yes, it was. Police officers, it must be noted, were put in an untenable position because they were not aware of Starbucks’ policy. Still, they accepted the word of the manager rather than the representations of the two young black men. 

This episode is larger than Starbucks. The resident population of Rittenhouse Square is only three percent African-American, yet they make up two-thirds of the people in the sub-district stopped in the first half of 2017, according to figures compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union.  The racial disparity reflected in police pedestrian stops is the largest in Philadelphia.  The frequency of stops sends a message to Black Americans: You are not welcome here.

The episode, and the problems  raised by it, are greater than those surrounding Rittenhouse. The problems are our problems.

Racism, long the scourge of America, is pervasive. It mocks the 14th Amendment’s commitment to “equal protection of the law,” and it defiles the democratic ideal of equality for all.

Equal protection of the law had virtually no historical precedent until the drafters of the 14th Amendment--ratified on July 28, 1868--went about their work.  Sen. Charles Sumner, the great abolitionist, believed that he may have introduced the words, “equality before the law” into American jurisprudence.

Sumner was justifiably proud of that achievement for, it proclaimed to his country and the world, that in the United States, the law would be equal to all. Under this majestic principle, there would not be two sets of laws--one for whites and one for blacks, anymore than there would be one rule for the rich and another for the poor.

Sumner’s dream—our dream—is yet unrealized. America must engage in a serious, searching and substantive conversation about racism and our values.




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