Starbucks discrimination 'a sign of America's cultural war'

Recent arrest of two black men at coffee shop highlights deeply-embedded racism against African Americans, analysts say.

    The incident at the coffee shop sparked boycott calls against Starbucks on social media [Reuters]
    The incident at the coffee shop sparked boycott calls against Starbucks on social media [Reuters]

    The arrest of two black men at a Starbucks coffee shop last week in the US city of Philadelphia has sparked outrage from protesters, who accuse the coffee giant of racial profiling.

    The two men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, were sitting in the coffee shop in the affluent Rittenhouse Square neighbourhood, waiting for a third person to arrive for a business meeting.

    They asked to use the toilet, but the manager refused because the men had not purchased anything. The manager then asked them to leave, and when they declined, called the police.

    A mobile phone video showing police arresting and handcuffing the men went viral, triggering protests against Starbucks and calls for boycott on social media.

    For members of the African American community, incidents like this are not uncommon. 

    Racism against African Americans "is deeply embedded and even programmed in the American culture since its inception," said Salim Muwakkil, a Chicago journalist and radio personality.

    'Don't fit in'

    Starbucks has more than 13,000 stores across the United States and a total of more than 27,000 shops worldwide.

    The chain is a considered a neighbourhood meeting place with free Wi-Fi access and many outlets to charge personal electronic devices.

    Two black men arrested while waiting at Starbucks

    According to Muwakkil, the April 12 incident in Philadelphia represents in part the gentrification of certain neighbourhoods in the US, mainly white middle class areas where outsiders are seen with suspicion and of a lesser status. 

    "Black people view this as a discord that they don't fit in; not just racially but also economically," he told Al Jazeera.

    Muwakkil added that the efforts to "deprogramme America" from racial and cultural bias against African Americans and other minorities have yet to begin in a meaningful way, despite the achievements of the civil rights era in the 1960s.

    He said that the country has yet to start healing from its violent past against the African American community, despite Barack Obama becoming its first black president in 2008. 

    'Political and economic empowerment'

    Nelson and Robinson spent several hours in jail, before being released. Richard Ross, Philadelphia police commissioner, later issued an apology to the two men.

    Starbucks said it would close 8,000 US stores for the afternoon of May 29 to conduct what it is calling racial-bias education.

    Kevin Johnson, the company's chief executive also issued a statement stating that "the circumstances surrounding the incident and the outcome in our store on Thursday were reprehensible, they were wrong.

    "And for that, I personally apologise to the two gentlemen who visited our store."

    However Philip Jackson, the founder and chairman of the Black star project group, said Starbucks' apology was "too little and too late".

    "The first thing that went to my mind when I heard of this incident was 'Thank God, those two young black men were not shot and killed by the police'," Jackson told Al Jazeera.

    He said the issue is bigger than what happened at the Starbucks store. He argued that especially after the late 2016 election of President Donald Trump, the US is going back to the 1930s era of Jim Crow laws that segregated black people from white. 

    Jackson said his organisation is organizing "pop-up" boycotts across the US to show Starbucks and corporate America their discontent about their treatment of African Americans.

    "What we need as black people is not diversity training, not an apology [but] political and economic empowerment," he said.

    According to the 2016 US Census Bureau, the percentage of Black or African Americans in the US is a little over 13 percent of a total 325 million Americans.

    Jackson said Trump's election has exasperated the issues faced by the African American, Latinos, and Muslim American communities even further than it was under Obama.

    Muwakkil said that Obama's election had prompted many African Americans thinking that they would be finally accepted as "legitimate Americans".

    "But the election of Trump, with all of his overt racism against minority groups was in reality America's backlash against the election of Obama," he added.

    "If  America does not solve its cultural wars against its minorities, especially the African American community, it could be detrimental to its future."

    Follow Ali Younes on Twitter @Ali_reports

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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