It was quiet in Starbucks in Chestnut Hill on Monday. On a normal weekday, the long café area is an all-ages row of people hammering away at the keyboards of their laptops and small groups chatting over their lattes. Yesterday, there were five people seated, three in line.
It may have just been the fact that it was a warm, sunny spring day that people weren’t indoors, though warm weather has never kept people out of the coffee shop before. It may have been in part because of calls to protest the chain after two black men were arrested in a Center City Starbucks, guilty of what WHYY columnist Solomon Jones described as “Waiting While Black.”
The details of the now-infamous arrest are clear cut. Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson arrived at the Starbucks to wait for a friend. Instead, two minutes after they entered, police came, cuffed both men and led them out of the coffee shop. The incident – including the protestations of several white customers – was captured on video and went viral, sparking outrage and promises to boycott the coffee chain.
Many of the calls to boycott Starbucks were not impressed with the responses from the City of Philadelphia, from Mayor Jim Kenny to Police Commissioner Richard Ross, or Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson’s promise to close 8,000 stores for training. “Not enough,” was the refrain.
In calling for a boycott, Jones wrote: “I’m waiting for the firing of the Starbucks manager who treated black customers with a level of disdain that smacks of racial profiling. I’m waiting for companies to stop telling us the age-old lie that hours of sensitivity training will solve centuries of racism. I’m waiting for the white allies who’ve joined in this struggle to join us in so many others.”
These are noble and understandable goals, but a boycott of Starbucks doesn’t make sense as a target. It wasn’t Starbucks corporate policy to make the call to 911, and it certainly wasn’t Starbucks policy that led the police to put both men in handcuffs.
Writing in The Guardian, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said a boycott of Starbucks “will have no measurable effect on systemic racism and unfairly punishes an innocent party.
“Racism is a malignant tumor in our society, and, when surgically applied, boycotts can zero in on the malady and attack it with laser precision. But launching widespread boycotts unjustly or without any specific attainable goal is like throwing away the scalpel and attacking the body with a jackhammer.”
Both views have merit. As rational as it may be to understand that boycotting Starbucks will have limited utility in driving back centuries of hard-wired racism, it’s not enough for black citizens – and all of us – to sit back and do nothing. If nothing else, a boycott can at least compel Starbucks and other corporations to act and do something to chip away at the institution of racism.
But in calling for change, we must realize that firing a Starbucks manager will not move the needle much, either. It’s going to take much more than a boycott to fix this problem. It’s going to take a lot of time.