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Who’s Really Welcome at Starbucks?

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In America, people of color are constantly asked if they have a right to be in the room

Starbucks photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images; Eyes photo: Getty. Photo-illustration by Eater

When two black men walked into a downtown Philadelphia Starbucks for a business meeting on April 12, they had no idea that they’d be walking out in handcuffs. The men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, were waiting for a friend to arrive when a manager called 911. As Nelson and Robinson sat at the table, mere minutes after arriving, police suddenly showed up to arrest them for trespassing.

The arrests, caught on video, sparked national outrage, with calls for boycotts and protests. Some have argued that the manager was justified in calling the police because the pair explicitly declined to purchase anything; that sentiment has echoed throughout comments sections and in various forums across the internet. But that line of thought erroneously suggests that sitting in a Starbucks is dependent on a financial transaction; for years, Starbucks has aggressively branded itself not simply as a spot to purchase coffee, but as a “third place” for people to freely commune.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” in the late 1980s to describe places outside of work and the home, where people could exchange ideas and build communities — places like parks, bookstores, bars, and cafes. Such spaces invite people from otherwise disparate walks of life into a common location, where the act of lingering becomes crucial to successful community building.

Starbucks has long used the idea to promote its coffeehouses. On its website, the company recounts how its executive chairman, Howard Schultz, was inspired “to bring the Italian coffeehouse tradition back to the United States, building a place for conversation and a sense of community — his vision of third place between work and home.” He hoped to make Starbucks more than a cafe to buy coffee and leave, in other words — a place to hang out and make connections, just like Nelson and Robinson tried to do in Philadelphia.

But Schultz’s and Starbucks’s ideal clashes with the reality that people of color in this country must constantly justify their existence, especially in predominantly white spaces; they must constantly answer the questions, “Do you have the right to be here?” and “Why are you really here?” — questions rarely asked of white people in the same spaces.

In the weeks since Nelson and Robinson’s arrest, multiple similar incidents have also made headlines: Last week, three LA Fitness employees in New Jersey were fired after asking two black men using the gym to pay or leave, even though both men had signed in before working out. The men were told that their membership had been terminated and were asked to leave, before staff called police on them. A few days later, a golfing club called the police on a group of black women who wouldn’t leave after a group of white members complained that the women were playing too slowly. And a Berkeley cafe suddenly closed last week after comedian W. Kamau Bell — prompted by the Starbucks incident — recounted a 2015 incident in which an employee shooed him away from the store window.

Vague corporate policy often acts as the mechanic that conveniently allows these things to happen — empowering corporate America to question whether people of color have a right to exist in a given space. At Starbucks, for instance, the chain’s third place concept isn’t clearly dictated in any company directives, and the Wall Street Journal reports that the official policy regarding the removal of non-paying customers is unclear at best. As a result, managers around the country have enacted contradictory case-by-case policies.

While Schultz has stated in interviews that no one should be kicked out of Starbucks unless they are disruptive, on Reddit, where there is an active community of Starbucks employees and fans, one user claimed in a post written seven months ago that their district manager directed staff to walk around the location every few hours and kick out people who had stayed for too long. Another user claimed their store covered electrical outlets to prevent people from using their laptops, an act reportedly approved by leadership for other locations in New York City in 2011. Eater reached out to a Starbucks representative for clarity on its non-paying customers policy, but the company did not comment before publication.

Based on Starbucks’ lack of a clear policy, Philadelphia police commissioner Richard Ross initially said his officers did “absolutely nothing wrong.” But when the 54-year-old commissioner learned that the men his officers arrested were simply doing what Starbucks has invited people to do for more than 30 years, he publicly apologized, claiming neither he nor the officers involved realized this before. “While it is no excuse, my lack of awareness of the Starbucks business model played a role in my message,” Ross said. “While this is apparently a well-known fact with Starbucks customers, not everyone is aware that people spend long hours in Starbucks and aren’t necessarily expected to make a purchase.”

It’s hard to buy that one. After the incident, Melissa DePino, the white patron who filmed the video, noted that she has stayed at Starbucks for hours on numerous occasions and has never been asked to leave; in fact, one would be hard-pressed to find an avid Starbucks consumer who hasn’t at some point taken the company up on its offer and used the free Wi-Fi, electrical outlets, or cozy booths for hours on end without a regular re-up on their Frappuccino. People “loiter” in bars, bookstores, and cafes around the world, sometimes without paying, because it is generally expected that it is okay to do so, within reason. This shows that what happened in Philadelphia is more than a misunderstanding of policy, it’s a result of believing that some people have less of a right to exist in certain places.

The irony in this incident is that Starbucks has frequently professed to be an agent of social change. Led by Schultz, an outspoken Democrat who has donated frequently to liberal causes, Starbucks has weighed in on social issues pertaining to race and class again and again. In the midst of discourse surrounding the police shootings of unarmed black men such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the company attempted to debunk assertions that it did not care about minority or lower-income neighborhoods by announcing plans to open stores in 15 underrepresented communities around the United States, including one in Ferguson. (A 2015 Eater analysis showed that despite the 15 new locations, more than 80 percent of American Starbucks stores were located in predominantly white neighborhoods, mostly with median income levels of $50,000 or higher.) Before that, the company put together the highly criticized Race Together initiative, in which baristas were encouraged to talk about race with customers.

Despite the failed attempts to appear inclusive, Starbucks presses on with pushing its “woke” image, at great expense. Since the day Nelson and Robinson were arrested, Starbucks executives have been on a costly apology tour, trying to reiterate its commitment to the third place and social justice. A reactionary plan to close stores to discuss implicit and racial bias with employees could cost the chain millions. About 8,000 stores will close for the afternoon on May 29 for the training.

But for many, the damage is done, and the incident serves as yet another example of a harsh reality: That despite loudly touted ideals, patrons of color face discrimination every day in the most mundane of spaces, from cafes to gyms. While some businesses are assumed to be an open place for all, this recent incident has confirmed for many that at the end of the day, for many businesses, front-facing inclusivity and welcomeness are still works in progress, if not flat-out shams.

Vince Dixon is Eater’s data visualization reporter.

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