Caffeinating While Black

Recently in Philadelphia, the nickname “The City of Brotherly Love” was more ironic than deserved. Two local businessmen, both African-American, were waiting in a Starbucks for a friend and associate, a white man. As would be normal when waiting for someone else, they hadn’t yet ordered anything. One of them reportedly asked to use the restroom but was told they were only for customers. The two men were asked to leave. The store manager called 9-1-1. The police arrived. To the confusion of most of the people in the Starbucks and the white associated, now present, the police handcuffed the two men and, on the dubious charge of “trespassing,” took them to jail, where they remained for nine hours until freed.

An embarrassed Philadelphia district attorney declined to press charges, saying bluntly that there was no evidence that anyone had committed any crime at all. Not only were the men innocent, but there was no actual charge on the books for them to guilty of. Executive Chairman of Starbucks Howard Schultz was so mortified that he ordered thousands of Starbucks stores to close for part of a day for racial sensitivity training, a form of corporate mea culpa.

The businessmen were both wealthy enough to be meeting their associate to discuss a real estate deal. Had they been white, what do you think the chance is that:

  1. they would be refused access to the restroom?
  2. they would be asked to leave?
  3. the police would be called when they didn’t leave?
  4. they would be arrested so quickly, or at all, once the police arrived?

If you believe that the chances are high that the Starbucks manager and the police would have treated a white person identically, then you must live within the lily-white reality distortion field of right-wing white privilege.

Almost reflexively, outlets like Fox News and Breitbart leaped to the defense of the police. Surely, the liberal elites were overreacting, because we just love to demonize cops. Surely, the two businessmen had it coming because they were, you know, black. Inside that distortion field, to be black is already a form of threat.

Like many of you, I’ve often wondered why black skin is treated as a threat unto itself, and I don’t have any more than a half-baked theory.

Those with white skin held those black skin as slaves for more than two hundred years, and I don’t know if some white people have fully come to terms with that fact, even one hundred and fifty years after slavery’s end. Right-wing whites are often guilty of projection, accusing the left of plotting to do to them what they secretly fantasize about doing to liberals and those not of their tribe. Perhaps if Africans had enslaved white Europeans, rather than the other way around, right-wing whites would seek bloody vengeance against every African they see, and they just assume that people of African descent must harbor similar vengeful feelings toward the descendants of their oppressors.

Or, since people on Fox News are perpetually trying to convince us that blacks slaves had it pretty good on Southern plantations, maybe they see every black face as an accusation of crimes their ancestors never truly atoned for, which they are still trying to rationalize.

Like I said, it’s a half-baked theory, but something must explain the disproportionately aggressive response to the mere appearance of a black face. I’m open to suggestions.

On the surface, the events inside that Starbucks lead to a few basic observations.

  1. Upon arriving at the store, even a cursory investigation would have told the police that the original call was bogus and that they were wasting their time.
  2. The store manager should be cited for making a frivolous 9-1-1 call. Even if there had been a good reason for the police to be present, this represents a blatant misuse of the 9-1-1 system.
  3. The police commissioner backed up his officers, as police officials usually do when their personnel are caught in some sort of misconduct, saying that the officers did things by the book, as if that settles it. If the officers did things by the book, and this is the outcome, then that book is in serious need of revisions.

The response is similar whenever a young African-American male winds up dead in the street, one or more bullets that were once police property embedded in his flesh. The officer or officers always “did things by the book” or “followed protocol.” Again, if the officers are following protocol and the results are too often a dead, unarmed civilian, then those protocols are fatally flawed. Literally.

Of course, the actions of the store manager were problematic. It’s hard to believe that the situation would have required a police response if there had been a noticeable decrease in the melanin content of the so-called “trespassers.”

We can’t solve this problem with a change in police policy and training. We’ll have to learn and evolve our way out of it. We probably can’t do that, or it will be much harder to do that unless we understand the nature of our own flaws in this department.

Racism, the theory that one’s worth as a human being is directly tied to how long ago one’s ancestors left Africa, has two basic components. The first is the ingrained, embedded, evolutionarily-hard-wired instinct to protect our own and distrust those not of our “tribe.” This instinct was last useful when we all wore fur from a freshly-killed mastodon.  The second part is the learned behavior, the culturally-encoded identification of the so-called “other.”

We can’t do much about the first, not today, not for many generations. The second, however, is completely doable, but it’s one of those cases where simple isn’t the same thing as easy.

Racists, by definition, define “us” very narrowly and “them” very broadly. While I would not automatically equate conservatism with racism, the dictionary definition of “conservative” suggests someone who is slow to change, implying that they enlarge their definition of “us” very cautiously.

The dictionary definition of “liberal,” especially the pre-political meaning with its implications of generosity and egalitarianism, virtually requires a broad definition of “us” and a correspondingly narrow definition of “them,” because logically the more people who fit under the “us” tent, the fewer people are left to fit under the “them” tent.

Progress would then imply the perpetual enlargement of “us” until there is no one left who fits the sole requirement to be one of “them,” which is not to be one of “us.”

Again, “simple” isn’t the same thing as “easy,” but it does suggest a useful direction: Any argument, any position, any philosophy that narrows rather than expands the definition of “us” is to be rejected out of hand.

Down that road lies a world where, no matter where the Starbucks is, no matter who the barista is, and no matter who the customer is, the cops are only there for the coffee.

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