Racist Starbucks Incident Was Wrong, Even If It Was Legal

Demonstrators protesting racist behavior in Starbucks
Photo credit: Mark Makela/Getty Images
Written by Guy Nave

A recent incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks is being defended because the behavior–while clearly racist–was allegedly “legal.”

The Starbucks encounter is just another example of the daily difficulties of being black in America. Two black men sitting in a Philadelphia Starbucks were arrested, placed in handcuffs and forcibly removed from the premises after being asked by a Starbucks employee to leave because they hadn’t ordered.

In a video that went viral on social media, the two men are surrounded by several Philadelphia police officers. A Starbucks employee called the police because the two men had asked to use the restroom without ordering anything and refused to leave the store when asked to leave. When the police arrived, the two men, who were in no way being disruptive, were again asked to leave. They were then arrested, handcuffed, and forcibly removed. While in police custody, the men were photographed, fingerprinted and held for eight hours, according to their attorney.

As one person commented,

This is a Starbucks. Since when are people asked to leave a Starbucks who are just sitting there?

Before inundating me with knee-jerk responses that the police were simply “doing their job,” can people please acknowledge the blatant racist behavior demonstrated here?

Also, can we resist the common refrain, “there are multitudes of injustices in America so can we stop complaining about racism and asserting, ‘black lives matter?'”

As an African American man who has experienced my unfair share of racist behavior in America, I’m tired of hearing there are so many other forms of injustice in America besides racism. I’m tired of the meaningless and insulting response, “all lives matter.”

Pointing out the blatant racial injustice that occurred in Starbucks is not a denial or diminishment other social injustices in America. Every time I complain about racial injustice in America, I do so with full awareness of the interconnectedness of social injustice and with a strong belief in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s assertion, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Creating a just America (and “Making America Great Again”) means addressing and eradicating ALL forms of injustice–including racism.

Justice is not a zero-sum game. People do not have to get defensive and point to other examples of injustice in America because people are protesting the recent racially motivated incident in a Philadelphia Starbucks.

In order to dismantle systemic racism in America, racist behavior has to be acknowledged as such. We have to stop making excuses for racist behavior and acknowledge the pervasiveness of racism in America.

Can’t we simply agree that this sort of racist behavior is totally unacceptable and intolerable? Despite the Philadelphia police commissioner’s response, “These officers had legal standing to make this arrest… These officers did absolutely nothing wrong. They followed policy…,” can’t we all agree that every human being should be able to sit in a restaurant while waiting for a meal companion to arrive without the humiliation of being asked to leave or the fear of being handcuffed by police for “trespassing?”

Just because racist behavior is supported by “legal standing” and police “policy,” that doesn’t make it right (Philadelphia’s police commissioner should know that better than many police commissioners). Just because police officers’ actions may have been legal doesn’t mean they “did absolutely nothing wrong.”

It is well past time that we call racism “wrong,” even if it is legal.

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About the author

Guy Nave

Guy Nave is a professor of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His research focuses on the topics of Christianity, religion and social justice, the social construction of religious meaning, and race-religion-and-politics. Professor Nave is currently researching the power, politics, and meaning behind the rhetoric of "change."

He is the author of several articles and book chapters, and he served as a New Testament Greek translator for the 2011 Common English Bible. His commentary on 2 Corinthians is published in the African American New Testament Commentary, and his book, The Role and Function of Repentance in Luke-Acts has been identified as “the standard scholarly work on repentance in the New Testament.”

Guy Nave received his Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Yale University. In addition to his blog posts here, he is a frequent contributor to Sojourners Magazine's online "Commentary" blog series.

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