Inherent Bias: Who Is Actually 'Welcome' at a Starbucks?

Starbucks doesn't need to close its stores for bias trainings. It needs to change its entire design so that it doesn't merely reflect the character of host neighborhoods, especially if that character is racist.
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Customers line up inside a Starbucks Coffee shop.

Customers line up inside a Starbucks Coffee shop.

Recently, a video circulated on the Internet of police handcuffing and removing two black men from a Starbucks in Philadelphia last Thursday, April 12th. The incident is illustrative of what pains many African Americans about the threats of gentrification: The men were reportedly charged with trespassing, and for a neighborhood like Philly's Rittenhouse Square, where the trespassed Starbucks is located, that may have been true in the eyes of a cafe manager trying to interpret the motives of two black people sitting in the establishment without ordering something.

On VisitPhilly.com, Rittenhouse Square is promoted as "the heart of Center City's most expensive and exclusive neighborhood."

Even though Philadelphia has a large African-American population, Rittenhouse Square is one of its whitest neighborhoods. The charges of trespassing against these two black men have to be viewed through that lens. It must also be answered whether the two men were simply trespassing on private property or whether they were trespassing on property located in an "exclusive" neighborhood—meaning excluding people who look like them.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has something to say about that, having collected data on police encounters with African Americans across the city since 2011 as part of a consent decree concerning racially discriminatory police patterns. What the ACLU found is that the police service area where Rittenhouse Square is located has "the highest racial disparities in pedestrian stops in the entire city"—67 percent of the people stopped there are African American, despite the black population in this area being only 3 percent.

"Are Black people not welcome in this neighborhood? That’s the message that is sent by police officers who repeatedly stop African-Americans there without cause," reads a statement from Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "There was no need for this incident to end with these two men in handcuffs. And it wouldn't have, if Commissioner Ross and the leadership of District 9 were serious about ending the mistreatment of Black people in that neighborhood and all over Philadelphia."

To be clear, the two men arrested at the Starbucks were not randomly selected and approached by police and then patted down for drugs and guns, as per the usual stop-and-frisk modus operandi. Instead, a Starbucks manager called the police, who came in squad deep, and used their discretion to make an arrest. However, criminal justice activists are treating the Starbucks ordeal as akin to stop-and-frisk practices, perhaps because of the context of the neighborhood where it happened. And this may not be the first time that black people have had problems in that Starbucks.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia's District Attorney Larry Krasner, a former criminal defender who is quite sensitive to the overpolicing of African Americans, declined to bring charges against the two men who were arrested. There have also been protests at the Rittenhouse Square Starbucks almost every day now since a video of the incident went viral over the weekend. The Starbucks manager who called the police has since left the store and claims that she did not intend to have this end in arrests. Starbucks Chief Executive Officer Kevin Johnson apologized publicly on behalf of his company and met with the two men in person on Monday, reportedly to ask forgiveness.

"Ambiguity was part of what caused the problem, the ambiguity about when and whether to call the police," said Johnson in an interview. "There are situations where it’s appropriate to call the police, situations where there are threats or disruptions in our store. This situation had none of that and these two gentlemen did not deserve what unfolded."

Many of the people involved in the apologia have invoked "unconscious bias" as a culprit in this racial spillover, and Starbucks announced today it was closing all of its stores next month for a racial bias training. Even the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said in a statement that the "Starbucks situation provides dangerous insight regarding the failure of our nation to take implicit bias seriously."

It's not clear what makes this an act of the unconscious or implicit variety, though. If a neighborhood is selling itself as "exclusive then it's more difficult to draw the line between covert and just plain ol' overt racism. Starbucks, by design, does not separate itself from the character of its local host gentry. As it reads on the Starbucks store design webpage: "We believe a coffeehouse should be a welcoming, inviting, and familiar place for people to connect, so we design our stores to reflect the unique character of the neighborhoods they serve."

The only ambiguity is how Starbucks defines "welcoming," "inviting," and "familiar," given this is not what African Americans in this neighborhood seem to experience. Instead, the Starbucks manager may have been doing what she was supposed to do, by carrying out her company's store design mission, by reflecting the character of a neighborhood where black people are stopped and frisked at an extraordinary clip. In that case, training for "unconscious bias" is not what's needed; what's needed is a fundamental change of its design—one that allows a Starbucks store to actually make good on its inclusive goals, even if located in an "exclusive" neighborhood.

Indeed, while the Starbucks design is supposed to embrace the feel of its host community, the stores still, for the most part, look the same no matter where you go. The logo of the Norse mermaid remains ubiquitous, for instance, which may send its own kind of signal to people of color. We also know that Starbucks itself fuels the kind of rising property values that gives gentrification a bad name among struggling low-income workers.

What many black people want assurance of, when they see a Starbucks opening in their community, is that they will be able to walk into this new establishment without suddenly being made to feel like a trespasser. It's not that black people don't want sophisticated amenities in their neighborhoods, or that they don't drink coffee. The racial income and wealth gaps are real, as is black poverty, but there are certainly enough ably incomed African Americans who can purchase a $5 macchiato if they choose. What they don't want, though, is to be viewed with suspicion because of their skin color. That is one of the parts of gentrification that is most difficult to live with.

A year ago, I wrote about the rise of coffeehouse culture and how this had begun to redraw, or maybe even calcify the class- and color-lines of what is considered an urban hangout. The television show Friends helped popularize the coffeehouse in this regard, with its all-white cast of characters regularly frequenting a cafe near New York City's Central Park. These white characters creatively loafed in this coffeehouse free of the consequences that usually come with being un- or under-employed; free of concerns that they'll be stopped or frisked when leaving the cafe; free of the pressure of diversity—given few if any black characters or consumers ever patronized this fictional cafe—and free of the agony of worrying that they would ever be viewed with suspicion in their coffee club, whether they were ordering something there or not. These are the kinds of values that coffeehouse culture signals to people of color, and the unnecessary arrests in the Rittenhouse Square Starbucks sees those values to their logical conclusion.

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.

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