Important Context is Still Missing in Starbucks "Racial" Incident

/// A couple dozen protesters gathered Sunday afternoon outside the Philadelphia Starbucks where two black men were arrested in an incident that prompted social media outrage and an apology from the coffee chain's CEO. Several demonstrators passed around a bullhorn and gave speeches expressing their outrage over the Thursday arrest. Police say Starbucks employees had called 911 to say the men were trespassing. The men were released "because of lack of evidence" that a crime had been committed. (AP Photo/Ron Todt)

As most know by now, two black men were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia for refusing to leave after being asked. This has led to an incredible number of online arguments, accusations and the public flogging of the manager of the store as a racist.

Despite the media narrative, the bullhorn protests, and the viciousness shown on Twitter in response, we still lack a surprising amount of context about the incident. In fact, there’s basically no provided evidence so far that this woman (the manager) was acting with racial motivation, conscious or otherwise.

Despite the media’s chosen narrative, some of that lack of context is actually known and if reported by the national media might help quell some of the tension. They of course can’t be expected to do that of course.

For example, did you know that Starbucks has admitted this store’s actual policy is to ask non-paying customers to leave and to call the police if they refuse?

Leave it to the local news to actually give needed information. Per WUSA9

“In certain circumstances, local practices are implemented,” Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said. “In this particular case, the local practice of asking someone who is not a customer to leave the store…followed by a call to the police.”

Now, let’s rehash what we know and see whether this woman’s actions were resonable in hindsight.

We know she originally approached them, not to ask them to leave, but to ask them what they’d like to order. They told her they did not intend to buy anything. At that point, per the admitted policy, she asks them to leave. We know they refused. Whether they were belligerent in their response is not known as Starbucks refuses to release the video (for reasons I’ll speculate on in a moment).

Regardless, the setup is a female manager faced with two undoubtedly larger men refusing to leave upon request. If you are in her shoes, now what? Do you ignore it and hope nothing escalates? Do you follow the policy and call the police? We know she chose the latter. In context, is that such an unreasonable decision by her?

I also ran into the assertion the other day that what proves this woman is a racist is that the police admitted they made a mistake.

That’s actually more complicated than it seems. This was the original response…

The Philadelphia Police Department stands by their decision to arrest the non-paying patrons.

“These officers did absolutely nothing wrong,” Commissioner Richard Ross. “They followed policy they did what they were supposed to do.”

After a week of getting battered, the Police Commissioner changed his tune and hedged his language…

“I should have said the officers acted within the scope of the law, and not that they didn’t do anything wrong,” Ross said. “Words are very important.”

At a news conference, a somber Ross said he “failed miserably” in addressing the arrests. He said that the issue of race is not lost on him and that he shouldn’t be the person making things worse.

“Shame on me if, in any way, I’ve done that,” he said.

If you go on to listen to his full comments, he’s pretty open about the fact that his personal opinions on Starbucks’ policy are what prompted his change of heart. He is also clearly influenced by the political pressure that he “made things worse” by not immediately focusing on race.  That’s all well and good, but it still doesn’t discredit the actions of the officers on scene.

In relation to the police’s actions, it’s been portrayed in many reports that these men were simply arrested for trespassing and drug off when the police arrived. That again misses important context.

The police showed up and first asked the men to leave, which they are legally bound to do given they were called to a private establishment. They challenged the officers, once again refused to leave, and are quoted as telling the officers to arrest them.

What is the alternative for the police? That they ignore the call of a private establishment and instead try to make their own determination? That’s a dangerous precedent to set.

Now, that leaves us with Starbucks’ response.

This has also been used as definitive proof that the woman was racially motivated. “Why would they close all their stores for racial training if it wasn’t!?” we are asked. The fact that Starbucks has vehemently criticized the incident is also used as evidence of this woman’s racial motivations. The insinuation being that if Starbucks thought otherwise, they’d back this woman up.

I say there’s little reason to think that’s true. Starbucks is an extremely liberal organization. This is the same company that encouraged all their baristas to discuss race and leave messages on cups on the topic after the Ferguson riots. Their CEO is extremely liberal. Their board is full of liberals. They are HQed in a liberal state. Their biggest customer base is urban liberals.

It should surprise no one that Starbucks, in the midst of a PR disaster, has chosen not to question the incident and instead has moved to quell any backlash that might hurt their business. This doesn’t mean that the board of Starbucks doesn’t actually believe in what they are doing. I’m sure they do, but it’s not evidence of what actually happened. It’s only evidence of what they feel the best response is.

It would serve no purpose for Starbucks to fight this. No amount of evidence will stop a social justice mob or get them to pause and question the circumstances of a case. It’s much smarter for Starbucks to close down for a day, get a PR win, and move on. That’s exactly what they are doing.

In all this, there are some other clues as to whether it really is an open and shut case that this manager was racially biased.

1) This woman hasn’t been fired. Pennsylvania is an “at will” work state. That means they can fire her for any reason as long as it doesn’t violate the law. There is no law against firing racists. The fact that they’ve protected her identity, only reassianged her to another location, and have no fired her says there’s a lot more context here we aren’t being told and that they may lack the evidence to avoid a lawsuit if she is fired.

2) There are no less than four cameras in the dining area of this specific store. If these men showed no hostility and this woman really was simply harassing them for no reason, why not release the tape to corroborate the story? We would be able to see her demeanor, how long they actually loitered, and whether she made multiple requests or not. It’s likely, given this is an establishment with customer interactions, that the cameras also have audio (when I owned my IT company, we typically put audio capable cameras in day cares, eateries, etc. where conversations may be important later). They should release the tape if it shows what the narrative says it shows.

3) The area in question is over 40% black. Does it really make sense that this woman went over a year with no problems but then decided she was a racist on this specific day to these specific men? It’s illogical to think she hadn’t had thousands of other interactions with black customers over her time as manager. Of course she had, so where are the other complaints? That again lends itself to the idea that this woman may of been acting out of other motivations than racial animus.

4) What little knowledge we have of this woman points to her actually being very liberal and engaged in social justice culture. One report, via Ben Shapiro, claims she even corrected customers for pronoun usage. Does that sound like a woman who would be predisposed to targeting minorities?

When all of this is taken together, I see many more questions than answers. I certainly don’t see enough evidence to continue to publicly burn this woman at the stake as a racist. In fact, I see no real evidence at all to this point to say she’s racist except that these men were black and that Starbucks has predictably chosen not to question the incident.

Circling back to the original policy at hand, is it a good one? It depends. How busy is this Starbucks? When I lived on Capitol Hill, our Starbucks at Barracks Row was tiny inside. It was always packed and the table space was limited. This is common in many urban Starbucks establishments I’ve been to. In the case of this specific store, it’s possible the manager was simply trying to clear tables for paying customers or that she felt not having open space would cost sales. That’s why such a policy exists in the first place. Not allowing non-paying customers to use the restroom is also extremely common in northern, urban establishments (it’s almost unheard of in the south).

When I look at this case, I’m reminded of the viciousness of mob justice and the discouragement of critical thinking in online and media discourse. Could this woman be a racist? It’s possible. Is it likely? Not from what I see. I think she more than likely felt threatened by them refusing to leave and then followed the store’s policy by calling the police.

Can one argue that she shouldn’t of felt threatened and that she should of discarded the policy given the circumstances? Sure, I guess you can do that. This is of course done via assertions of “implicit” bias (which is a very questionable theory in and of itself). That’s a big assumption though. At that point, we are so far into speculation of her motivations that it’d be impossible to even prove. Should she continue to have her life destroyed over a baseless accusation of implicit bias? I don’t think so.

In the end, I think this story is missing way too much context to be a basis for the mass of articles, coverage, and assertions of racism that have been thrown around. This is not the kind of discourse or rush to judgement that is healthy in a free society. We are quickly entering a world where any negative interaction with a minority can be spun as racism and used to figuratively hang a person.

Regardless of your views on racism in America, we should all be willing to wait on the summation of the facts before assuming guilt. In this case, if I’m going to ere on a side, I’m going to ere on the side of not labeling someone a racist and destroying their life when there is a distinct lack of actual evidence to that effect. If that in turn makes me guilty of something or insensitive, I’ll just have to live with that.