OPED: Starbucks incident reminds that racism thrives

David A. Love
Tribune News Service

The arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks demonstrates that racism in policing, and in daily life, is still an urgent problem in America.

Demonstrators occupy the Starbucks that has become the center of protests Monday, April 16, 2018, in Philadelphia. Starbucks wants to add training for store managers on "unconscious bias," CEO Kevin Johnson said Monday, as activists held more protests at a Philadelphia store where two black men were arrested after employees said they were trespassing. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

On April 12, a Starbucks employee called the police to report the two men for "refusing to make a purchase or leave." Although the men waiting at a table to meet a friend did nothing wrong, they were arrested, handcuffed, fingerprinted, photographed and held for nearly nine hours.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross, who is black, defended the police, saying they "did absolutely nothing wrong." But Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, in a statement, said he was "heartbroken" by an incident that "appears to exemplify what racial discrimination looks like in 2018."

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Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson apologized in person to the two men. His company plans to close 8,000 stores on May 29 to provide nearly 175,000 employees with "racial-bias education geared toward preventing discrimination in our stores."

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That's a good start. But what do you do when the entire country needs a permanent, daily education on racism?

Protesters gather outside a Starbucks in Philadelphia, Sunday, April 15, 2018, where two black men were arrested Thursday after Starbucks employees called police to say the men were trespassing. The arrest prompted accusations of racism on social media. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson posted a lengthy statement Saturday night, calling the situation "disheartening" and that it led to a "reprehensible" outcome. (AP Photo/Ron Todt)

As a black man, I am long accustomed to navigating life under the assumption that I am unwelcome, unworthy and perhaps dangerous.

Sometimes, white women clutch their purses as they pass me on the street. My heart races when I am in my car and see police approaching, because I know that innocence is no defense when you are black and "fit the description." I know that a chance encounter with law enforcement could mean that my two kids will not see their father tonight, or ever again.

Just recently, Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old father of two, was shot to death by Sacramento police in his grandmother's backyard for holding a cellphone. Police waited five minutes to call for help after shooting him seven times in the back; 20 bullets were fired in all.

Stevante Clark, shouting the name of his brother, police shooting victim Stephon Clark, disrupts a meeting of the Sacramento City Council, Tuesday, March 27, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. Stevante Clark disrupted the meeting and demanded to speak causing the city council to adjourn for a roughly 15-minute recess as a result of disruption. Stephon Clark, who was unarmed, was shot and killed by Sacramento Police Officers, Sunday, March 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

When the president of the United States condemns protesting black football players, dismantles civil rights enforcement, encourages police to brutalize and sees "some very fine people" among white supremacists, he is part of the problem. But it is a problem that goes beyond men with white hoods, swastika tattoos or red hats that read "Make America Great Again." Racism is an intergenerational system of power that denies and punishes people of color in every facet of life.

Society has criminalized black men for hundreds of years, enacting laws and adopting practices to shut them out. Those who deny the power and ubiquity of racism in American life believe the answer is for black people to become respectable, stay out of trouble, work harder and comply with the police.

But I know my Ivy League degrees will not immunize me from a police officer's bullet. My experience clerking for two federal judges, leading a nonprofit organization or serving as a senior aide in a state legislature will not protect my skull from a baton.

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Two decades before Black Lives Matter movement, I was a human rights activist in New York. I fought against police abuse and misconduct, working with victims' families, lawmakers and law enforcement to reform the system. So much has changed since then, and yet so little. Black men are still America's boogeyman because this country refuses to grapple with its racist past, and its racist present.

—David A. Love is a writer based in Philadelphia.