Confronting racism

4/30/2018, 11:40 a.m.

There was a time not too long ago when businesses in Richmond and across the South would call the police to arrest black people who sat down at lunch counters because they wanted to order.

So we found a sad irony in the April 12 arrest of two black men in Philadelphia because they sat down at a Starbucks and didn’t order anything.

The CEO of Starbucks, Kevin R. Johnson, expertly went into damage control mode, apologizing first to the two men who were detained for nine hours and then removing the manager that called the police. However, it is not clear whether she was fired or simply transferred to another store.

Mr. Johnson also announced that 8,000 Starbucks shops across the country would be closed for a few hours on May 29 for “unconscious bias training” for the company’s 175,000 employees. He also said the company would make such training materials available to the other 6,000 stores owned by franchisees in airports and grocery stores around the country.

While the company is to be commended for its swift action, we bristle that Starbucks officials and others are trying to pass off the incident as an unfortunate result of “unconscious bias” that a corporate training can fix.


What took place at Starbucks was not “unconscious bias.” It was out and out ugly racist behavior that happens to people of color daily in America, from sea to shining sea. It is an act of overt, conscious racism when a store manager decides to pick up a phone and call police on black people who are doing in Starbucks what everybody everywhere does in Starbucks — meet friends or business associates or clients, read the newspaper or use the free internet to do some work on a laptop, without needing to make a purchase.

It’s conscious racism — not unconscious bias — when a York, Pa., golf club owner picks up the phone and calls police on two black women golfers who also are club members because he said the women were playing too slowly and needed to leave the course. The police, thank goodness, left without charging anyone.

It’s conscious racism — not unconscious bias — when a black person goes into a store and is ignored by sales clerks who then gush over the white shopper who walks in after them, or conversely, the black person is followed around the store by a sales clerk or store security when white shoppers are free to browse without accompaniment.

It’s conscious racism — not unconscious bias — when black men and black women earn only 72 percent and 62.5 percent, respectively, of what white men earn.

It’s conscious racism — not unconscious bias — when a 32-year-old black man is Tasered, wrestled to the ground, beat in the head and put in a chokehold by police in Asheville, N.C. His crime: He allegedly was jaywalking on a deserted street late one summer night in 2017.

It’s conscious racism — not unconscious bias — when police have pulled out their weapons and killed 75 unarmed black men and four unarmed black women in America since 2015, many of whom were holding nothing more than a cell phone or nothing at all.

As people of color, we don’t need to be social psychologists to know when we see, hear or experience racism. To lay it to “unconscious bias” is an easy way out for companies and individuals when we know there’s nothing unconscious or excusable about racist actions.

What the Starbucks incident and video showed to white people in the café and around the world is just a smidgen of the racist behavior people of color must deal with each and every day. While Philadelphia held no surprises for us, it showed that serious, targeted and continuing efforts are needed to deal with the issue head on.

Training, while helpful, doesn’t eliminate the underlying thought that propels white people to act in such despicable and racist ways. But firing someone who engages in such behavior can nip it in the bud — and send a message from the top down and throughout a company that such behavior will not be tolerated.