African Americans are often made to feel as though we are uninvited guests in our own country. We are excluded from environments great and small, at times by force and often because of irrational fears and unconscious biases. This being the United States, those individual bigotries have support from an enabling culture and policies that codify them. This exclusion is the very root of racial discrimination, and of the social penalties that whiteness exacts upon blackness.
Thus, the somewhat academic question of “spaces” emerges time and again: not merely about which ones are safe, in a physical and emotional sense, but also which ones are fully open to us. The civil rights movement made its mark first through nonviolent black presence in arenas deemed off limits to us. The front seats of public buses. Lunch counters and water fountains. Schools. This past week has been a reminder of how fraught and varied that struggle is (in one’s own neighborhood, in a Starbucks) and why it matters that we push forward – whether or not we end up on a Coachella stage, or before the Pulitzer committee.
After missing his bus last Thursday, Brennan Walker, a 14-year-old student in Rochester Hills, Michigan, tried to walk to school. His mother had taken his phone away, and soon, Walker was lost. He ended up doing what most Americans would think is safe to do: knock on a neighbor’s door and ask for help and directions. But that same act cost Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell their lives – and it almost cost Walker his. He told local reporters that after a white woman in the house behaved as if she thought Walker was trying to break in, a white man, Jeffrey Ziegler, came downstairs with a gun. Walker took off running. He only heard the gunshot that meant to take his life before escaping, later hiding and crying.
The other episode was less harrowing, but no less infuriating. It took place the same day, at a Starbucks in the ritzy, very white Rittenhouse Square neighborhood in Philadelphia’s Center City. Many years ago, I briefly rented an apartment a few blocks west of the cafe’s 18th and Spruce location. I don’t recall ever going inside. Perhaps I may have used its restroom, logged onto its free wifi, or done what two black men arrested there last Thursday did: arrange to meet a friend or business associate there.
By now, many of us have seen the viral video shot by customer Melissa DePino, showing the Philadelphia police officers confronting and arresting the two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, who had been waiting peacefully. Local real estate developer Andrew Yaffe, who arrived to meet with Nelson and Robinson as they were being arrested without resistance, was outraged – as were, it sounds like, many other white patrons audible on the DePino video. The white folks in the café seemed to grasp that their skin color allowed them enough leeway to give the officers hell and not risk legal or physical danger. There was no reason to charge the men with anything but “waiting while black,” so district attorney Larry Krasner later let them go.
This wasn’t a unique situation – not even at this particular Starbucks. Pressured by local protests and national shame, Starbucks, to its credit, appears to be taking the event seriously. The company’s CEO, Kevin Johnson, apologized to Nelson and Robinson in person, and the store manager is apparently no longer with the company. The chain will close all of its 8,000 or so cafés in the United States for the afternoon of May 29, when employees will undergo anti-discrimination training via a curriculum devised by in part by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund president Sherrilyn Ifill, former Attorney General Eric Holder, the Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson and Demos’ Heather McGhee.
“Being treated with respect and dignity at a place of public accommodation is an essential aspect of full citizenship,” Ifill said in a statement Tuesday. “The reality is that most Black Americans regularly face the indignities of being treated with suspicion, asked to pre-pay for service or denied service altogether, or told they cannot use a store bathroom.” Ifill added this important point about the Philadelphia incident: “The shocking discrimination they endured reflects the dual reality for many Black people who suffer both from race discrimination by retailers and racial profiling by law enforcement.”
The collaborative relationship of discrimination and police power is important to note. The Starbucks incident is yet another example of how white fear enables local authorities to make life even more hazardous for black people. The peril that we face from police is already exponential when compared to any other group, save Native Americans, and any adult in this country with a lick of sense knows that is the case. Still, that Philadelphia store manager’s default response was part of a sad American pattern that has stretched through time since our ancestors were first kidnapped and brought here. Too many Americans are choosing, with a disturbing speed and ease, to introduce their black neighbors to the criminal justice system, without any regard for consequences that they have no risk of suffering themselves.
True enough, the police dispatchers inflated the threat that the manager reported in her 911 call, calling the two men “a group of males … causing a disturbance.” Similarly lazy descriptions have in the past contributed to the deaths of people like Tamir Rice. But the store manager, according to a witness, sicced the police on the two men without bothering to request that they leave. Calling the police on black folks in this country can very often put our lives in jeopardy in a way that white people will never experience. The Starbucks CEO claimed in a statement that the manager “never intended for these men to be arrested” and that “this should never have escalated as it did.” What, exactly, did the store manager think would happen when she called the cops? Did she not consider that, in and of itself, an escalation?
Conversely, what can we as Americans expect when a black child rings a neighbor’s doorbell, asking for directions? We certainly shouldn’t expect to have a white man emerge and try to murder him – but in this America, there is precedent for this specific act. The 14-year-old Walker may have been too young to hear or recognize those ghosts alongside him, warning him not to knock.
And yet, in the midst of all that news, both Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar reminded us how satisfying it is to watch black people dominating in white spaces, all without much regard for anyone’s fulfillment but their own. Her innovative Coachella tribute to historically black colleges and universities, those havens of humanity and possibility for a people so often shunned everywhere else.
There was no better metaphor for her unapologetic entry into a white space than the very beginning of her act on Saturday night at the festival. Arguably the biggest pop star on the planet strode down a California walkway dressed as a modern Nefertiti through the Coachella audience, puncturing what had long been one of the whitest remaining realms in American music with her butterscotch strides. Starting her epic two-hour set like this, Ms. Knowles-Carter had made an announcement without singing or saying a word. As her dancers kept pace alongside her on a narrow runway, it was clear what she was communicating: Your place is now mine, and I have brought company.
Two days later, I happened to be watching clips of her performance when I learned that Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize for his most recent album, DAMN. The prodigy was the first rapper to earn the award since the Pulitzer music category was created in 1943, an honor reminiscent of just last December, when LL Cool J ended the hip-hop drought at the Kennedy Center Honors.
Revisiting Lamar’s verses in the wake of his win, this bit from “PRIDE” got me thinking about what happened in Philly and Rochester Hills:
Sick venom in men and women overcome with pride,
A perfect world is never perfect, only filled with lies
Promises are broken and more resentment come alive,
Race barriers make inferior of you and I
As Lamar makes clear, America’s self-imposed limitations on black movement hurt us all. Both of these incidents are antithetical to any notion of community, and to a shared America. In an age when the NAACP slapped Missouri – the entire state – with a travel warning for African Americans due to the high risk of racial violence there, gentrification metastasizes unbound in our cities, encouraging white people to explore and expand with abandon into traditionally African American and Hispanic areas. Gentrification brings a heavier police presence, which isn’t terribly swell for the people of color native to that neighborhood. If our own spaces are being steadily colonized while others remain closed off, where, as black people, can we go?
When white fear creates black dangerousness out of whole cloth, it isn’t difficult to see how that can result in more frequent racial profiling and police violence. At the same time, we African Americans are not only discouraged or even inhibited by housing discrimination and other structural barriers from exploring neighborhoods like the one where that Starbucks is situated—we can’t even show up there without being suspected of wrongdoing.
Here’s a thought exercise: How many customers from that particular Starbucks identify themselves as Beyoncé fans? Or Kendrick fans? What are the chances that the store manager – the one who called the cops – has enjoyed a song by one or both of the artists, whose work is an examination of the black experience, yet she still felt compelled to have two black men removed from her store? Black culture is devoured as readily as our people are rejected.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people in a Starbucks doing everything from writing novels to interviewing job candidates, all with nary a latte among them. Despite what its store rules apparently say, this is the environment that the Starbucks phenomenon and coffeehouse culture at large has fostered. Hell, even the front porch of American homes has, until recently, not been considered a threatening place. Therefore, it’s worth taking notice when a person running one of these touchstones – a neighbor’s porch, the local café – reinforces just who belongs to that community. And it is even more significant when she or he uses law enforcement or gun violence to draw that line.
The past week has offered us a reminder of our divergent possibilities. Denying access to an increasing number of spaces is part of a larger, systematic refusal to allow black people full participation in the American project. How do we counteract that? It seems that boycotts of places like Starbucks are counterproductive in this case, as those who seek to exclude us want our absence. Must we instead, as Doreen St. Félix wrote in her review of Beyoncé’s Coachella performance, hope to overpower the arenas that would have the power to diminish us? It would certainly seem that the conscious act of showing up, in the form of protests, has worked. I don’t know if I’ll be knocking on doors asking for directions quite yet, but I just might take my computer and write in a Starbucks, letting my presence speak for itself. I don’t drink coffee, so perhaps I’ll just ask for a cup of hot water. I’ll bring my own tea.