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Demonstrators occupy the Starbucks where two African-American men were arrested after employees said they were trespassing, in Philadelphia in April.
Commentary

Fear of a Black Patron

In retail, fear of black criminality regularly shows up in policies and practices across stores and sectors.

Last week, the fear that two black men would siphon free WiFi, jazz, and bathroom breaks from a Philadelphia Starbucks drove the coffee shop’s manager to call local law enforcement for backup, creating yet one more media spectacle highlighting the disparate treatment of black Americans in the criminal justice system.

The decision to accuse the men of trespassing confused many familiar with Starbucks because the chain is renowned for its open, hospitable stores. Indeed, the company has proudly marketed itself as a “third place between home and work” where people can casually meet, relax and, yes, use the restroom.

This week, the eagerness of a Starbucks employee to criminalize black men for something many of the store's visitors do regularly earned the singular ire of Twitter users, elected officials, and racial advocacy groups alike, but the coffee shop is far from the only company practicing this type of profiling.

In retail, fear of black criminality regularly shows up in policies and practices across stores and sectors. From bodegas to big-box retailers, businesses and their customers often treat black people as inherently criminal, prone to violence and theft. This bias has driven a number of high-profile police brutality scandals in recent years.

A series of loitering complaints led to Eric Garner’s death at the hands of a police officer. John Crawford, III was shot to death by an officer in a Walmart aisle because other shoppers thought he looked menacing carrying an air rifle sold in the store. Martese Johnson, then a student at UVA, was simply having a beer with classmates when officers violently confronted, detained and arrested him in 2015.

And from coast to coast, the fear that black men, women, and children will steal everything from artichoke dip to deep conditioner drives retailers to retrofit their stores with bulletproof glass, plaster “no restroom” signs on the walls, and threaten the use of police violence liberally.

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In 2015, the Georgetown Business Improvement District was exposed for partnering with police via GroupMe to surveil “suspicious” blacks in the popular Washington, D.C. shopping area. January of this year, a woman sued Walmart for the discriminatory practice of locking up (and escorting customers to) its black hair products in one Southern California store. And just last month in Independence, Mo., Applebee's issued an apology after employees at one of the chain’s restaurants called the police on two black patrons. The customers apparently fit the description of two other black women, one “skinny” and the other “who wore makeup,” who had dined and dashed the day before.

For individuals on the receiving end of this treatment, the experience of being surveilled, followed, questioned, searched, and sometimes ejected from stores is so routine that “shopping while black” is a staple of the infamous “talk” between black parents and children. And it is so ubiquitous, prominent black figures from Oprah Winfrey to President Barack Obama have attested to being harassed while shopping.

Such incidents may register as minor on the scale of negative interactions black Americans have in our society but they’re still significant. They matter because they’re often the prelude to encounters with police. Indeed, when businesses and their employees find criminality in actions as banal as sitting while black, they are working as first responders in America's manic system of over-policing.

That’s perhaps the biggest takeaway from the shameful incident at Starbucks: that racism in our criminal justice system doesn’t just start with the biased police, prosecutors and policymakers; it’s everywhere, even your friendly neighborhood coffee shop.

Aaron Ross Coleman is a New York City-based journalist. He writes at the intersection of race, business, and economics.