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May 14, 2018

Opening Starbucks bathrooms won't heal racial strife, but this idea sure might

Imagine if black people called police on white people for no good reason as much as vice versa

Opinion Race
Carroll - Starbucks at 18th and Spruce streets Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

The Starbucks at 18th and Spruce streets.

When the gates of outrage hell opened upon Starbucks locations near Rittenhouse Square and beyond last month, if you’d have asked me for the most token response imaginable, it’d have been a company opening its bathrooms for use by anyone at any time.

Well, that’s apparently what happened last week when Starbucks Executive Chairman Howard Schulz said, “We don't want to become a public bathroom, but we're going to make the right decision 100 percent of the time and give people the key.”

Should Starbucks be lauded for reacting rather than brushing aside a lingering issue brought to the public conscience by the all-but-instant actions of a lone employee? Sure. Why not.

Still, it’s a concession straight from the damage-control playbook, and one that – along with closing shops for a day of sensitivity training – leans more toward quelling criticisms rather solving the heart of the issue.

It’s also a concession that’s going to make work life considerably messier for coffee-shop workers who thought they were signing up to make cappuccinos and write names on cups but will now spend part of their shift scrubbing inevitably disgusting bathrooms clean. (Hope they quadruple up on the “employees must wash hands” signs.)

This particular issue was never about someone needing to take a leak in a city lacking public restrooms. (Where the Managing Director’s Office solicited information from companies interested in building more restrooms for tourists, commuters and the homeless.)

This was about racial profiling by a private business where restrooms – in places like gas stations and restaurants – are typically reserved for paying customers.

It was also emblematic of a horrendously offensive trend that sees police called on black people, by white people, for doing absolutely nothing wrong. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this selection of stories from America since the Starbucks incident in the City of Brotherly Love.

White lady calls the cops on a black family for setting up a charcoal grill in an Oakland, California park:

Police called on three black women checking out of an Airbnb because they didn’t wave to or smile at the woman who called authorities:

White student who called police on a Yale graduate student for the offense of being alseep in a common area  apparently had done so before:

Cops called on three black teens who, despite shopping for prom wear at a Nordstrom Rack in Missouri, were suspected of being shoplifters.

Cops called to an LA Fitness in North Jersey after a worker maintained they hadn't paid, which they had.

That’s just a sampling. 

That’s what it looks like in 2018 America. 

And that’s why opening a Starbucks bathroom to the public comes nowhere close to addressing the inherent issue.

With these unfortunate incidents in mind, I something saw over the weekend that actually could bring about change.

At a minimum, it’d make people think twice about reflexively calling police on African-Americans despite the ever-present “see something, say something” mantra that’s damaged the way we see one another.

As he often does, vociferous Philadelphia attorney Michael Coard described the proposed pushback best. Here’s an excerpt from what he wrote about it on Facebook this weekend:

It wouldn’t be inappropriate for me, as an attorney, to advise Black folks to be good citizens by calling the cops every time they see a white person in Philadelphia committing any of the following crimes:

Jaywalking (75 Pa 3543)

Spitting on a sidewalk, street, or subway concourse (Phila. Code 10-601.107)

Public drunkenness (75 Pa. 5505)

Publicly displaying a US flag that is not clean (21 Pa. 2101(a))

Attaching a nail or staple to a utility pole (18 Pa. 6905)

Failing to require proof of age at movie theaters (18 Pa. 7106)

Granted, my Irish skin is so fair that I get sunburn from writing the word sun. Still, the table-turning idea for black people to call police on white people they suspect of doing anything untoward in public is nothing short of brilliant (with a touch of petty).

But fair is fair.

Set aside concerns about increased 911-call volume; those numbers are already higher because of the aforementioned, unnecessary calls.

What one Chicago columnist dubbed a mission to “Call 1-800-TOO-WITE (to) report ‘suspicious white meddlers” would make a considerably greater difference in addressing the issue than would unlocking coffee-shop bathrooms.

Sometimes, people need to be made uncomfortable before necessary changes come about.

At a minimum, and in the name of fairness, it'll teach us to stop jaywalking and dishonoring the flag.