Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk | Starbucks incident another example of retail racism

Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk | Starbucks incident another example of retail racism

The arrests of Rahson Nelson and Donte Robinson at a Philadelphia Starbucks on April 12 and its aftermath raise thorny questions about race, class and gender.

Since the dawn of American apartheid in the 1890s, criminality has been racialized. With the abolition of convict lease laws, the two Great Migrations and the emergence of the black consumer market after World War II, systems of racial control shifted to also police the black shopper. The focus changed, but the racial reasoning remained.

As Khalil G. Muhammad argues in "The Condemnation of Blackness," in the U.S. white imagination, individual white Americans may become criminals, but, African-Americans, as a group, are innately criminal. This is the underlying logic behind the surveillance, harassment, expulsions and arrests that compose "retail racism" or "shopping while black."

Retail racism is widespread. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey reveals that 44 percent of African-Americans report "unfair treatment" in stores and restaurants. This discriminatory conduct occurs because blackness is criminalized in the U.S. It is also seen as synonymous with poverty and what is pejoratively called "ghetto culture." Moreover, blackness, initially and usually, overshadows every other identity, whether it's the individual black person's primary identification or not.

American apartheid is about policing blackness. This works on two levels. One, blacks are caged in so-called "ghettoes." Two, they are generally scrutinized, persecuted, expelled or detained and sometimes assaulted when they venture into "white space." Whereas predominantly black neighborhoods are presumed impoverished, spaces in which whites are dominant are often wealthy and exclusive.

Starbucks is such a space. The Starbucks at which Nelson and Robinson were arrested fits that general pattern. Rittenhouse Square, where it's located, is described as "the heart of Center City's most expensive and exclusive neighborhood."

Nelson and Robinson's dress conveyed that they were neither homeless nor "thugs." Nonetheless, Holly Hylton, the since fired manager, decided they did not belong. Their blackness crosscut their projection of middle classness. In her mind, they were loitering, trespassing, and if they wouldn't leave, she would have the police remove them.

White reaction, however, was not uniform. Strangely, several white Americans took exception to the treatment the men received. Perhaps, a growing awareness of racial injustice and a willingness to bear witness, if not act, is finally emerging among whites.

Yet, predictably, the police arrived and arrested them without investigating.

The intersection of race and gender also played a role in Nelson and Robinson's profiling and arrest. While not a uniquely black male experience, racial profiling, harassment and arrest do disproportionately characterize the history of black men.

The image of the black criminal has always been unisex, but also largely male.

Data from The Guardian's "The Counted" reveal that 96 percent of black people killed by police were male in 2016. Thus, black women constituted 4 percent of blacks killed by police. However, even though they only composed about 13 percent of American women, black women represented nearly 21 percent of women killed by police.

This racial-gendered configuration is common. What's somewhat new are the racialized class aspects of this incident. Nelson and Robinson, and Richard Ross, Philadelphia's African-American police commissioner, are all middle class. Nelson and Robinson are aspiring entrepreneurs, while Ross administers the city's repressive apparatus, responsible for maintaining the racial-class order.

At least one commentator, the Chicago Tribune's Dahleen Glanton, believes the empathy Nelson and Robinson received from whites was a product of their submissive behavior. As she recounts, they passively accepted their fate in silence. Admittedly, as Nelson observed, the fear of being brutalized or murdered by the police shaped their behavior. Yet their response wasn't just molded by fright. Nelson expressed the dual's middle-class worldview, when he stated, "You can either be ignorant or you can show some type of sophistication and act like you have class." In part, this statement distances them from the thug image, but it also reflects a deeper class consciousness.

Though their treatment recalls an earlier era of racism and their response mirrors civil-rights era approaches, Robinson casted shade on the boycott Starbucks campaign. Rejecting mass direct action, he claimed he and Nelson were seeking "a seat at the table." His entrepreneurial vision blinds him to the fact that his and Robinson's negotiations with Starbuck's CEO Kevin Johnson is a result of the boycott.

Another class-based issue was Ross' initial reaction. After Nelson and Robinson's arrest, Ross immediately exonerated his officers, claiming "they did absolutely nothing wrong." Ross saw the police's role as enforcing business owners' policies. He later apologized for his comments.

Ross' apology is noteworthy because he acknowledges the distinction between U.S. law and justice.

This incident reminds us that racial oppression remains an everyday phenomenon in contemporary America. It serves to highlight the particular forms of racialized gendered repression that are disproportionately reserved for black men. It offers a glimmer of hope, as it demonstrates that some white Americans are beginning to act against the everyday forms of racial oppression. It also underscores the depth of the anti-black working class and anti-social movement attitude increasingly prevalent among the entrepreneurial sector of the black middle class. And it reveals that much of the administration of the system of racial oppression is now in the hands of sectors of the black middle class.

Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is

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