The View From Here | A Bad Cup of Coffee

Starbucks sign (Starbucks logo.jpg by Marco Paköeningra licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0) 

In a time when the shootings of unarmed black men have spurred a renewed civil rights movement, the arrest — and later release — of two black men at a local Starbucks might not, at first glance, seem like that big of a deal.

But make no mistake: Even without the daily protests that have since led to the closure of the coffee retailer at 18th and Spruce streets, everyone should by now know that the indignities suffered by these particular men — getting escorted out of the store in handcuffs and being held for eight hours, all set in motion by reportedly asking to use a restroom without having bought anything — is more than what most of us would, in good conscience, put up with.

As a coffee addict, I’ve been known to get my fix at a Starbucks from time to time. I even had a meeting once at the very same Starbucks where the two men had waited for a local businessman. When meeting someone, I usually order, but I don’t always. And I’ve more than once used a Starbucks restroom without buying anything, an apparent violation of Starbucks’ corporate policy, according to news reports. The difference, of course, between me and these two men is that I happen to be white.

That’s not to say that Starbucks is inherently racist or that the manager who called 911 on April 12 — he has since left his job — is racist. The same can be said for the police who, instead of deescalating the situation, broke out the handcuffs. Despite the screams of protesters to the contrary, nothing about this episode — save for the arrest itself — indicates that Starbucks is the modern-day equivalent of a Birmingham, Ala., lunch counter.

But we don’t need to transport ourselves to the 1960s South to experience racism, just as we don’t need to conjure up images of 1939 Berlin to appreciate anti-Semitism.

What instead seems to be at work — in Starbucks, at many a workplace, even on your own street — is implicit bias.

Implicit bias, according to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, “refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner.” Implicit bias does not encapsulate the known biases that someone buries when out in public, but instead operates behind the scenes.

It’s implicit bias that conditions a person, whether he’s a Starbucks manager or she’s on the neighborhood watch, to view a black man and not a white one with suspicion. Implicit bias can also be found in contexts outside of race relations.

On April 15, I had the pleasure of attending the annual gala of the local Friendship Circle, which for more than a decade has been pairing teenagers with children with special needs in a variety of programs. During the event, Kami Verne, one of the gala’s co-chairs, told a story about her niece, Ava. One day, Ava, who has special needs, and her cousins were playing together.

“The kids decided they wanted to put on a show and ran out to practice,” she said. “They didn’t include Ava, and Ava was left by herself. The kids weren’t being mean; her cousins are Ava-obsessed and love spending time with her.

“They just assumed that Ava couldn’t participate, so they didn’t ask.” (A perfect example of implicit bias.)

Ava’s mother approached Verne and asked her to get the kids to invite Ava.

“You see, we have no way of knowing what Ava processes,” Verne concluded. “What if she did feel lonely? Or perhaps more importantly, her cousins were instantly reminded of something crucial: Like all of us, Ava is a human being with friendship needs and connection needs. Once brought to the kids’ attention, they didn’t have to be reminded again.

“We all need guidance.”

Verne’s words are as true for a Jewish organization that fuels the bonds of friendship between children regardless of physical, social, emotional or intellectual limitations as they are for an entire society grappling with the aftereffects of slavery and Jim Crow laws. Forcing the closure of an offending coffee shop can be cathartic, but real change can only come through strengthening the bonds between people, not escorting them away. 

Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at


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