Starbucks arrests: A case of ‘implicit bias’?
Even in 2018, said Mikki Kendall in WashingtonPost.com, blacks and whites live in two different Americas—“and in one you can get arrested for sitting in a Starbucks.” The latest proof that racism is alive and well came last week in a Philadelphia branch of the ubiquitous coffee chain. Two 23-year-old black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, arrived early at Starbucks for a business meeting and sat at a table to wait for a third party. Two minutes later, the manager came over to ask if they were going to order anything, and when Nelson and Robinson said no, the manager told them to leave. She then called the police, who arrested the pair for “trespassing” and detained them for eight hours. Cellphone videos of the arrests triggered protests, threatened boycotts, and public contrition from Starbucks’ upper management. CEO Kevin Johnson apologized to Nelson and Robinson in person, announced that the offending manager has been fired, and that more than 8,000 Starbucks stores will close on May 29 so that 170,000 employees can receive “racial-bias education.” That corporate damage-control campaign may save Starbucks’ image, said Karen Attiah, also in WashingtonPost.com, but let’s be honest. The routine harassment people of color experience in public spaces “isn’t a Starbucks problem. It’s an America problem.”
Still, Starbucks deserves a lot of credit, said Leonard Pitts Jr. in the Miami Herald. Kevin Johnson and Howard Schultz, the chain’s billionaire founder, could easily have blamed this debacle on the manager and declared the matter resolved by her firing. Instead, both bravely identified the real issue as “implicit bias”—the unconscious, pervasive racism that causes even well-meaning white Americans to view black people as lesser, dangerous Others. “Given how difficult it can be to get white people to even acknowledge the reality of implicit bias,” Starbucks’ bold stand deserves “a standing ovation.”
No, it doesn’t, said Kyle Smith in NationalReview.com. Every honest observer knows that being black in America is a “burden that you carry with you at all times.” But the reaction to this single incident has been “unhinged.” How does anyone know that “implicit bias” caused the manager to ask the two men to leave? What if she was simply following Starbucks’ official, if often unenforced, policy on table use by noncustomers? Surely these are questions worth investigating before 170,000 employees are sentenced to re-education camp. “Implicit bias” is “Orwellian junk science,” said David French, also in NationalReview.com. Studies show people’s scores on tests designed to measure unconscious racism change from test to test and have little value in predicting their behavior. There’s also something very creepy about a corporation “attempting not just to correct its employees’ behavior but to reform their minds.”
Fine—let’s stop blaming “implicit bias,” said Shamira Ibrahim in NYMag.com. The whole concept only enables white people to dismiss racism as a “mere accident of psychology,” rather than a purpose-built system of oppression and double standards that has yet to be dismantled. The fact that this all played out in a coffee shop is a grim “irony of ironies,” said Anthony Stanford in ChicagoTribune.com. During the civil rights movement in the 1950s, blacks were spat on and arrested for trying to order coffee at a Southern lunch counter. How far have we come since those shameful days? In the America of 2018, two black men were just humiliated and arrested for “not ordering a cup of coffee.” ■