Foolishness at Starbucks

Race bias in a "clean well-lighted place”

Posted Apr 22, 2018


On April 12. 2018 two 23-year-old African American budding entrepreneurs, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, entered a Starbucks in Philadelphia’s center city to meet with someone to discuss a real estate deal they had been working on for months. Mr. Nelson asked the white female manager to use the restroom and was told by her that they were reserved for paying customers. He joined his colleague at a table, where they sat waiting without ordering anything, even after the manager came over and asked if they planned to make a purchase. The manager apparently asked the men to leave and then called the police when they did not comply. Several squad cars responded, and the men were put in handcuffs (they wisely did not resist). As they were being taken away, the third person (who is white) they were waiting for showed up and pleaded for their release. His pleas were ignored and the two men were arrested without explanation or any attempt to discuss the matter. The incident (which lasted only a few minutes) was recorded on a cell phone and received millions of views, sparking (yet one more) debate about race in America. After the store refused to press charges, the two men were released, with the explanation that no crime was committed, and that it was never the company’s intent to have them arrested. In addition to apologizing, and holding racial tolerance training for staff, Starbucks has agreed to help the two men to complete their college studies.  

The incident has had significant consequences for the manager (who appears to have been fired), the police (the commissioner has deeply apologized) and the company (Starbucks was widely criticized, and its founder, known for his political liberalism, has scheduled a day when thousands of stores will be closed--at incalculable expense--for racial sensitivity training for all workers). The incident has been widely discussed, but not from the standpoint of a foolishness analysis. I shall proceed to do such an analysis, focusing on three sets of actors: (a) the store manager, (b) the police, and (c) the arrested guys. By including “c”, I in no way am absolving or excusing the implicit racism revealed by the actions of “a” and “b”.  First, I wish to discuss a relevant contextual matter, namely the implicit dual tacit functions of Starbucks as both “America’s meeting place” and “America’s restroom” (and possibly also “America’s place for getting good free WiFi when working on a laptop.”)

                      Manifest and Latent Functions of Starbucks

Ironically (and coincidentally—my home WiFi was down) I wrote most of this column at a Starbucks in my lily white Denver suburb. I first went into the restroom (nobody stopped me) and then sat down with my laptop for a couple of minutes before buying the least expensive drink (water—I was over-caffeinated) on the menu. Every table was taken by a single white person (or at most two white persons), almost all looking at a laptop, and sitting there undisturbed for long periods of time. When making my modest purchase, I asked the Barista if she or a co-worker had ever asked anyone at a table to place an order, or had ever told someone they could not use the restroom unless they ordered. The answer to both questions was “no” and she then added “Starbucks is a great place for a customer to work, so why would I bother someone, even if they did not order something?”

I am old enough to remember the days before Starbucks and even before McDonald’s when finding a public bathroom (let alone a clean one) could be a real problem. It is possible that Sigmund Freud’s strong dislike of America can be traced to the fact that he famously peed in his pants when walking with equally famed Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung in a park near New York’s Columbia University on his only trip to the United States. Sociologists have noted that institutions have both manifest (official) and latent (unofficial) functions with the latter often being more important than the former. The manifest function of Starbucks is to sell coffee and related products to customers, while the latent function is to provide the public a decent place to hang out and, when needed, relieve themselves. While the company would likely prefer to emphasize the manifest function (which produces revenue), they do implicitly understand that the (free of charge) latent function contributes to the bottom line. (In fact, they advertise themselves as “America’s meeting place”). Their understanding of this was demonstrated when they once backed off (after customer protest) from an attempt to set time limits for internet use.  

For the fact is that most people understand that paying an exorbitant amount of money for a cup of Starbucks coffee is the hidden price for using the facility as a nice place to pass the time. Ernest Hemingway made a similar observation about cafés in post-WWI Paris with his short story titled “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.” It dealt with an elderly impoverished man who would spend hours sitting unimpeded in his neighborhood bistro while nursing a drink all day, and was allowed to do so by the empathetic waiters. Along those lines, I once saw the manager of a Starbucks (in the college town of Davis, California) give a free coffee and pastry to a homeless man who lived on the nearby streets. Presumably, the recipient of this kindness honored a reciprocal understanding that he would not over-use this privilege and would avoid bothering (such as by panhandling) other customers.                                   

                         Foolishness of the Store Manager

 In the several decades that I have been using Starbucks (or my second choice, McDonald’s) for emergency bathroom access, I have run into push-back only once, when I found I needed to ask for a key to access the restroom in a very run-down McDonald’s in a dilapidated neighborhood near downtown Detroit.  I assume that the reason was related to the extensive homelessness problem that I noticed in the neighborhood. As a rule, Starbucks (unlike McDonalds) stores are not located in the very poorest neighborhoods, in part because they require either a car to get there or substantial cash to buy something. (The one exception would be a store in a center city area like Philadelphia’s, where one can see a mix of wealthy young professionals and poor street people such as those the manager mistakenly assumed Nelson and Robinson—casually but conventionally dressed--to be). I have not seen a racial breakdown, but it appears that black people generally make up only a small percentage of Starbucks clients. Thus, the implicit racial bias of the manager was likely influenced by the fact that relatively few of the store’s customers were black, and a higher percentage of the latter may have been people she assumed were penniless. This is not to excuse her apparent racial bias, but only to raise the possibility that fully understanding the incident requires more information about the history of this store and of the employee’s past behavior.  

I do not know this for sure, but I suspect that asking a non-paying customer to leave was not unknown in this store, or by this manager. Most likely people asked to leave were poor or homelesss. A mistake made by this manager was being unable to see that she was here dealing with customers very similar, but for skin color, to the many young white customers who were camping out for varying periods of time in her clean and well-lighted place. Likely, most people asked to leave would comply without complaint (homeless people tend to be diffident) and police would not be called. Thus, she would be unused to being told “no,” was certainly unused to having her behavior recorded and put on social media, and likely lacked the skills, training or personal inclination to treat this passive defiance as something not requiring police intervention. One part of the manager’s foolishness was not understanding that when police are called, things can develop in unanticipated or unwanted (and, fortunately not in this case, violent) directions. Thus, the foolishness of the store manager was not anticipating that by this single act she might not only lose her job but could open herself up to considerable opprobrium.  

When analyzing a conflict situation between two or more people, it helps to know on a precise micro level all aspects of the context, including the words, intonation and body language of all of the actors. Unfortunately, the recording did not start early enough for those facts to be known. What was the manager’s tone of voice and attitude? Ditto for the arrested men. I have no reason to think that was a significant factor here, but in most cases of a conflict, words, tone and attitude explain most of the variance.

                               Foolishness of the Police

It must have been a slow crime day in Philadelphia for multiple squad cars to show up to deal with such a minor problem. Presumably the arrest reflected the “broken windows” policing philosophy, in which the idea is that showing zero tolerance for minor infractions (such as jumping subway turnstiles) is a way to catch and prevent more serious crimes and criminals. The most upsetting thing about police behavior here is not the extreme action (shooting, beating) that has spurred the Black Lives Matter movement (that could have been different if the men had put up a fight) but the routine demeaning behavior of hassling young black men for something close to no reason. If the arresting officers had made any effort to talk the situation over calmly with Nelson and Robinson (who the officers would quickly come to understand had no criminal intent), there is little doubt the standoff could have been resolved peacefully. The police chief (himself a black man) initially was somewhat defensive, criticizing Starbucks for not letting the police know that it advertises itself as a meeting place. He quickly responded to criticism, however, by apologizing for what he described as a personal failure, and vowed to revamp his department’s policies and procedures. The city agreed to settle a lawsuit by paying the two men a symbolic $1 each, and agreed to commit $200,000 to help high school students to become entrepreneurs.  

                                   Foolishness of the Two Guys 

Every place has its own cultural norms, and I have had enough experience with Starbucks to know its  norms and how to fly under the radar when visiting one of their stores. What I am saying is that I always try to anticipate and follow (or pretend to be following) institutional expectations for Starbucks or any other public place. With regard to Starbucks, one norm (and I have never seen it not followed) is to buy a coffee or something else before sitting down. I also have never asked permission to use the bathroom, even when just walking in and back out of the store when on a road trip. It is possible, as a white (and older) person that there would be no negative consequences if I ever violated those norms, but I have never been inclined to find out. It is possible that Rashon and Donte had little or no experience with Starbucks and, thus, lacked the opportunity to learn those behavioral norms. I would like the chance to ask them why they blew off the manager’s (admittedly biased) request, and if they made any attempt at explanation (such as “we will order something once our business meeting starts”). Also, I would like to ask them why they did not just accede to her request. Were they planning on leaving once their friend showed up? Was the supposed policy communicated disrespectfully? Were they trying to make some rights-related point? Or (relevant to risk-recognition) did they consider that the manager might drop a dime on them for trespassing? I realize (having some risk-awareness) that I am opening myself up to attack by suggesting that these victims of racial bias could have behaved differently, but in this as with most other bad outcomes, the truth is multi-faceted. From a decency standpoint, however, I wish some empathy and flexibility had been followed by the store manager and by the cops.

                                     © Stephen Greenspan