Starbucks and racism

Let me put that another way. How about “Starbucks OR racism?” I suppose offering those two versions of the question is going to offend some people. I hope so because their being offended is what I want to write about.

We live in a time when people are inclined to identify themselves in terms of what offends them and of precisely how offended they are. So people who are inclined to think that Starbucks has an obligation to provide free restrooms for urban residents will focus on how they violated that obligation by refusing to allow loiterers to use the restrooms.

starbucks 1People who are inclined to think that the two men who were asked to leave were asked because they were black and further, that Starbucks followup action, which involved calling the police, was also taken because the men were black. This view imagines that if the two men had been white, they would not have been asked to leave and also that the police would not have been called.

People who are inclined to think that the police treat white people differently than black people will focus on the behavior of the police once they arrived and will find that their behavior was either inappropriate in some general way or specifically that it was racially discriminatory.

People who think that these three elements of that knotty situation cannot be realistically separated are not going to find a happy home in any of those three congregations. I am a person like that and I am speaking from experience.

Policy bias

So…if you tell me which of those three conversations you would like to have—and simultaneously, of course, which two you would like to ignore—I will tell you a good deal about your orientation toward public policy.

If you want to talk about Starbucks’ right to charge for the services they provide and to deny those services to people who don’t pay for them, then you will be called a social conservative, whether you think of yourself that way or not. You have chosen one of the three pictures to be “the one we ought to be talking about” and you have chosen to emphasize the rights of the store to make the rules that are in force there. [1]

If you want to talk about the treatment the non-customers received and especially if youstarbucks 3 want to argue that their race was a part of that treatment, you will be called a social liberal, whether you think of yourself that way or not. You, too, have chosen to bring one of the three pictures to the fore, to argue that “this is the real issue.” [2] One of the aspects of this situation is clearly based on race, you will say, and that is the important one.

If you want to talk about the reaction of the police when they arrived at Starbucks—one of the black non-customers was led away in handcuffs—you will probably be called a social conservative, although your point might have more to do with race relations than with police behavior. You are probably going to be called a social liberal too, because the conservatives are going to want to argue that the behavior of the police, whatever it was, was fully appropriate and so on.

How am I doing? You tell me what “the real issue” is and I will place you in the appropriate congregation.

If you are like most of us, most of the people you know are members of your congregation [3] and they will assure you that the face of the issue you have chosen to emphasize is exactly the right one—it is “the real issue.” At that point, you can go to war with the anyone who is a member of one of the other two congregations, if you know any, or you can declare war anonymously against all of them online.

“Simple Meliorism”

It isn’t hard to think of ways this could have been handled better. The customers could have bought a cup of coffee while they were waiting and could have used the restrooms that Starbucks maintains for customers. The staff could have dealt with the noncompliance with store rules in a way that was less likely to provoke a confrontation. That’s what Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson (see the picture below) says they should have done. [4] The police could have handled the issue is a less confrontational way—handcuffs? for not buying a cup of coffee?—and they should have.

starbucks 2But all these responses are “make it better” responses. They are not responses that transfer each of these elements into the social war zone and declare each of them to be fundamental. The war zone has warriors like “property rights” and “black lives matter” and “police brutality.” They are all there on the field and they are all there to make war. In fact there is a disparaging name radicals use for what I am calling “make it better” responses; they call it “simple meliorism” and say that it only postpones the revolution.

Better than meliorism

A more fundamental response is envisioned by imagining a series of conversations within the groups. Black groups could get together and say, “Look. If you are there for the purpose of stirring up controversy, just go to the Starbucks and refuse to buy anything or to leave. It’s perfect. If you are trying to avoid controversy, do what everybody else does: buy something. [5] This is black leaders teaching the members of that congregation how to stay out of trouble if that is what they want to do and how to make trouble if that is what they want to do.

Simultaneously, the police get together and talk to their dispatchers and to the officers who are going to respond to the situation and train them in defusing situations of social conflict. Very few situations are “defused” by putting a nonviolent person in handcuffs. The police are always working on the border of keeping themselves safe, on the one hand, and managing the situation as pacifically as possible on the other.  Always their judgment is required.  Working with them to do it better is part of the responsibility of every police force.  So is prosecuting the ones who refuse to do it better.

And, of course, Starbucks can have its own little private talk with its employees and teach them to handle situations better than this one was handled. They are doing that. And they can also have their own really big public talk in which they apologize for their part in the event and promise to do better and apologize to the men who were arrested and to the American public in general. To the Russian public too, I assume, [6]

This is a real problem for Starbucks to deal with because, whatever their rights might bestarbucks 4 as owners of the commercial space, they have a carefully cultivated image to maintain. “The episode,” says New York Times writer Christine Hauser, “goes to the heart of how the company has modeled itself, with campaigns that address racial and social issues and promote its image as a community meeting place for customers to linger.” That’s the image Starbucks is trying to protect.

Starbucks has no more interest in the three congregations I described above than I do. I want to see the three strands that got knotted in this case, dealt with in their knotted form and when they are un-knotted, I want a “make things better” approach so long as that will work better than the alternatives. Starbucks wants to protect and if possible to enhance its image and that is why the CEO is going to Philadelphia to apologize in person to the two men who were abused by the poor decision made by one of the staff in one of their stores.

Starbucks is dealing with what they see as their real problem, which is how to appear to be the kind of place they advertise themselves to be. If that kind of conversation is also going on in the other congregations and among the ideologues of each group, a new day is about to dawn.

Don’t hold your breath.

[1] That is the way Jim Crow laws were defended as well. I know the issues are different, but the way of preferring one right over others is similar.
[2] Over many years of teaching political psychology, I have learned that the expression “this is the real issue” indicates the issue you want to talk about. It is not that other issues are somehow less real; it is that they are less preferred.
[3] This is a trait Natalie Angier referred to in her recent science article as “homophily,” the attraction to people who are like yourself.
[4] The company instructs employees to call the police in certain situations, such as those involving “threats or disturbance,” Mr. Johnson said. “In this case, none of that occurred,” he said. “It was completely inappropriate to engage the police.” This is a clip from Christine Hauser’s account in the New York Times of April 16.
[5] That’s what I do. I figure I am using the facilities and I owe them something.
[6] In 2015, Starbucks celebrated the opening of their hundredth store in Russia. Starbucks could have called the event “Grounds for Celebration,” but I’m pretty sure they didn’t.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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