Why we should go beyond #BoycottStarbucks to fight racial discrimination in America

We’re only four months into 2018 and we’ve already had to side eye multiple corporations because of racist behavior — both in advertising and in their treatment of customers.

We’ve taken Heineken to task for its thinly veiled racism in advertising, masquerading as ignorance. We’ve called out H&M for its racist children’s hoodie. Let’s not forget about last year’s Pepsi commercial fail that was promptly skewered on social media for centering Kendall Jenner in a problematic visual that co-opted social justice movements like Black Lives Matter. Popular retail establishments like IHOP, Applebee’s, and Old Navy are just a few of the companies that have been accused of practicing racial discrimination in their interactions with customers.

The latest instance of racial discrimination in a corporate setting took place at a Starbucks located in Philadelphia — a coffee slinging giant that, for the most part, appears to have kept offenses to a minimum. But the racial profiling of two peaceful Black men quite literally hits close to home for me as a Black woman and as a Philly resident.

Video footage, captured by eyewitnesses on April 12th, showed two Black men getting arrested by Philadelphia police officers and escorted out of the Center City location in handcuffs, and the disturbing video has swept across social media. In one Twitter post, author Melissa DePino, who uploaded the first footage of the incident, states that “The police were called because the men hadn’t ordered anything.” DePino went on to say “They were waiting for a friend to show up, who did [show up] as they were taken out in handcuffs for doing nothing. All the other white ppl are wondering why it’s never happened to us when we do the same thing.”


The answer to why this same incident hasn’t happened to a white person is, simply, racism. That’s why white individuals are able to sit in any Starbucks on any given day and use it as their home office without ordering so much as a cup of ice water. That’s why a white individual is given the bathroom code without having to buy a $5 latte first, and that’s why incidents like this keep happening.

As we (Black people) keep saying, we are often criminalized for no other reason than existing in spaces where some people wished that we did not.

Can any of us still claim to be surprised when these things happen?

Much like in the case of the H&M hoodie and the Pepsi fiasco, the almost immediate response to these incidents is to call for a boycott. It wasn’t long before #BoycottStarbucks appeared on Twitter. Social media users called for the firing of the Center City location manager, urged for more than an idyllic apology from Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, and threatened to take their business elsewhere.

The widespread reactions range between April 16th protests at the Starbucks location where the men were arrested, Black people judging other Black people for not protesting, and urges to get your caffeine fix from Black-owned cafes and food establishments.

Organized boycotts like the Montgomery Bus Boycott have been proven effective in our history. But after the hype surrounding today’s supposed brand boycotts dies down, many of us go right back to shopping at those businesses and consuming their products, while the brands themselves rarely experience a huge hit to their overall profits. Boycotts alone — at least as current boycotts have been organized — often feel like a passive solution.

Even if a large percentage of Philly’s Black residents stopped frequenting that location or vowed to never drink another Frappuccino, the racial bias, discriminatory policies, and unjust systems that allowed these two men to be forcefully escorted out of Starbucks with their wrists shackled would still be in place.

There is power in the Black dollar. When we funnel money into mostly white-owned corporations — ones that care more about making a profit from us than they care about humanizing us — removing our dollars seems like the most powerful solution. But in reality, boycotts and threats to boycott only when the outrage is still fresh is not enough on its own.

It can be tempting to join a social justice bandwagon only to slip back into doing nothing until the next Black person is targeted.

According to a Washington Post article, Starbucks has stated that the manager who called the police “is no longer at that store.” This firing is a step toward focusing on the issue at hand — which is the racial biases of select individuals, and perhaps not the corporation itself. But if this action were the only one taken, it would suggest that simply replacing the manager will fix this systemic social issue.

So what is going to keep this from happening again? Post-apology from Johnson, the CEO has met with the two racially profiled men and the corporation announced that 8,000 stores will be closed on the afternoon of May 29th for mandatory racial-bias training for employees. The training will consist of a curriculum designed by many local and national Black leaders. The implementation of racial-bias training is an important first step, but one that resulted because of reaction — not proaction. I have to wonder what it means for the state of racism in America that top Black leaders are just now being consulted to essentially train white employees to not call the police on peaceful Black patrons — whether they’ve ordered a croissant, asked to go to the bathroom, or just want to wait for an associate.

Starbucks’s hope is that current and future employees will exercise better discernment, but it’s going to take more than a half-day training to eradicate the irrational racist fear of Black people that has been ingrained in so many minds for so long.

The inevitable next time something like this happens at another place of business, taking our money to independently-owned Black establishments is a step in the right direction (and something we should do to support our communities anyway). Still, it may only be a piece of the solution since billion dollar corporations with discriminatory policies will most likely still thrive without us.

As much as we call to remove our dollars from the brands that don’t support us, we also have to call out the individual and collective ways that society forces us to feel unsafe in our own skin.

This means putting pressure on police departments that claim they were just following protocol (as the Philadelphia Police Department did in response to the Starbucks arrests). And when it comes to brands who want to be (and should be) proactive, this means assessing who is advising employees at the highest level and weeding out any policies that could allow two docile Black men to be removed for doing nothing other than waiting while Black — before it happens.