Making Sense of the Starbucks Incident

Rashon Nelson being arrested at Starbucks. Video still from Melissa DePino’s Twitter account, @missydepino.

On April 12, 2018, two African American men visited a Starbucks cafe in Philadelphia for a business meeting and waited for a friend to join them. After asking to use the restroom, the manager asked them to buy something or leave. When the men refused, the manager accused them of trespassing and called the police to escort them out of the cafe.

This is an example of racial prejudice and, specifically, of unconscious bias. If the men were white, they likely would have been treated differently. While the men hadn’t placed an order, it was unreasonable for them to be arrested for trespass. I would like to examine the Starbucks incident from the Quaker perspective by considering how the main players practiced Quaker values. I will also describe the learnings from this incident that can bring Quakerism into our everyday lives.

As a seventh-grade student attending a Friends school, I have been taught Quaker values. Although I am a Hindu and not formally a Quaker, Quaker values are well aligned with my own religious principles. I am committed to living by them and consider myself a “Quindu.”

Quakerism teaches me about integrity, which is doing the right thing when nobody is watching. It is extremely difficult to choose the right thing over the “easy” or “convenient” response. In this incident, the right thing for the manager to do would have been to show the men the bathroom. However, the manager was affected by unconscious bias, and decided to ask the men to leave the store. This incident would not have happened if the manager used the opportunity to demonstrate integrity and controlled an unconscious bias by not falling victim to irrational fear.

The commissioner of the Philadelphia Police also failed to show integrity. The commissioner, Richard Ross Jr. (himself an African American man), initially said the officers did “absolutely nothing wrong” and stood by them. He stated that the men were politely asked to leave by the officers many times, and that police arrested them only when they declined. He later apologized publicly to the men and stated that he understood why the men were surprised when asked to leave.

Quakerism teaches us that when we know that something is wrong, we should do everything in our power to make it right, but the commissioner did not do so immediately. On the positive side, there were witnesses in the cafe (other customers) who demonstrated integrity. Not only did they record and post the video of the men getting arrested, they also questioned the judgment of the police in the moment. Because the other customers posted the video, it attracted nationwide attention, which led to widespread citizen protests and forced the commissioner and the CEO of Starbucks to reconsider the severity of this incident. These citizen activists unknowingly applied the Quaker principle of doing everything in their power to make things right.

People routinely use Starbucks as a meeting place and go there for the Internet access to do work. Such people may not order anything, yet they do not get kicked out. Since this incident showed unconscious bias to be an actual social problem, Starbucks decided to close all of its company-owned U.S. stores on May 29 to conducted racial-bias trainings.

The Philadelphia store’s manager should have also considered the equality of all people. Many people discriminate against African Americans. They stereotype them as entry-level service workers and use racial slurs that imply a tendency to steal. The men’s race does not imply that they are criminals. Such false stereotypes must end. African American people contribute to the economy just as other citizens do. People such as mathematician Katherine Johnson, President Barack Obama, and astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson have all contributed to our culture and economy in exceptional ways. Biases are a problem in America as they harm the innocent. Being African American is not and should not be a crime. There are also many other minorities such as Hispanics, the LGBTQIA+ community, and Native Americans who regularly face discrimination. As individuals who are committed to Quaker values, we must work to create a broader community that is free of unconscious bias.

The two arrested men followed the value of peace. By peacefully protesting their arrest while also complying with the police, the men teach us how to register protest without harming anyone. When one starts with a peaceful mindset, responsible decision making and proper judgment become easier to maintain. The two men said that young African Americans like themselves should not be frightened by this incident and encouraged them to work toward changing America into an unprejudiced nation.

Everyone involved should keep the broader community in mind. In the video, only a few of the other customers told the police the truth about the two men and objected to their arrest. Regretfully, other customers who witnessed the incident remained silent. Simple biases can and do tear communities apart. The purpose of a community is to have others who understand and accept you. If we cannot understand and accept each other, we fail as a community.

Rashon Nelson, left, and Donte Robinson on Good Morning America, April 19, 2018.

There are many learning points that can be drawn from the Starbucks incident. Unconscious bias is an actual problem in America and must be accepted as such. While our nation has made much progress to improve race relations, our unconscious bias remains a significant social challenge that needs to be overcome. We should learn to control our unconscious biases to build a better national community. Starbucks is taking action to make sure that such discrimination does not happen again. All Starbucks employees took a course on racial biases and why they are harmful. It is crucial to acknowledge that discrimination is something that all humans engage in. However, it must not be accepted as normal; it should be fixed.

We can employ Quaker practices to address unconscious bias. For example, Friends regularly have a moment of silence before the start of any activity. This moment helps focus and organize thoughts, so that we are calm and collected before taking action. If the Starbucks manager had a moment of silence to consider the wider implications of her actions, she may have chosen to act differently.

Quaker values (in fact, any religious values) should not be mere theoretical ideas. They should become the north star that guides our daily actions. When we actively apply the SPICES (an acronym for Quaker values representing simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship) to all that we do, we will find the determination to stand up against injustice. Quaker history is filled with individuals who defended what is right. For example, there were many Quaker abolitionists who objected to slavery. Susan B. Anthony was a renowned women’s rights activist who helped women obtain the right to vote. Elizabeth Blackwell, another Quaker, was the first woman to graduate from a medical school and promoted the education of women in medicine in the United States.

The Starbucks incident could have been completely avoided had the store manager followed Quaker principles in decision making. Individuals committed to SPICES must start living them so that we can come together as a larger community that respects and understands everyone, and we can promote social change.

Ankita Achanta

Ankita Achanta is a seventh-grade student at Newtown Friends School (NFS) in Newtown, Pa. She participates in The Agents of Social Change (TASC) at NFS, a student group founded on the belief that “we will be able to make a difference in our world,” and that uses Quaker process in decision making.

8 thoughts on “Making Sense of the Starbucks Incident

  1. I am overwhelmed, wiping tears of joy and gratitude from my eyes. Thank you, Ankita, for the light you have shared with us.

  2. Ankita gives an amazingly well-written analysis of this incident, the range of attitudes and perspectives that envelop it, and Quaker and not-so-Quaker responses. When I read in the article “As a seventh-grade student,” I thought she was referring to some earlier period in her life. Reading the brief bio at the end clarified that it is her current situation.

    Anika – you have wisdom far beyond your years. Perhaps we can give some credit to your family and your faith tradition’s influence, and to your school and the TASC group, but undoubtedly we have to honor you just for who you are. As a Quindu myself (born Presbyterian, opened up to Hindu tradition while serving in the Peace Corps in W. Africa, and a Quaker meeting member since returning), I celebrate your wisdom, and wish you many years of blessedness.

  3. I can’t thank you enough, Ankita, for making such a difference in the world. I’m 74 and my admiration for and love of Quaker process continues to grow and grow. I learned from you today.
    I also like that you think of yourself as Quindu; I think of myself as a Taoist-Quaker, after living in China and studying Chinese language and philosophy.

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