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OPED: Starbucks incident reminds that racism thrives
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.
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."
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."
That's a good start. But what do you do when the entire country needs a permanent, daily education on racism?
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.
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.
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.