A Difficult Learning Curve: Starbucks in Context

Bob Bates —

Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson

During the morning of April 12, 2018, in a Philadelphia Starbucks coffee shop, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were arrested for trespassing while awaiting the arrival of a business acquaintance. They had not been there long and the shop was not crowded, but they had not made a purchase. The Starbucks manager called 911 to summon police to remove the two 23-year old well-groomed, polite, young black men, ostensibly for violation of company policy. Without incident, police handcuffed the men and removed them from the premises. Nelson and Robinson would spend about nine hours in custody, part of the time in a jail cell with no outside contact. They were released just after midnight with no charges filed. The incident, captured on cellphone video, went viral, prompting a range of questions and rippling consequences. Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney, who is white, stated that what happened “appears to exemplify what racial discrimination looks like in 2018.” Nelson later said, “When you know that you did nothing wrong, how do you react to it? You can either be ignorant or you can show some type of sophistication and act like you have class. That was the choice we had.”

Subsequently, Nelson and Robinson reached an agreement with Starbucks that includes an undisclosed financial settlement “as well as continued listening and dialogue between the parties and specific action and opportunity.” Additionally, Nelson and Robinson reached an agreement with the city of Philadelphia that includes a symbolic payment of $1 each and a commitment from the city to fund $200,000 for a grant program for high-school students aspiring to become entrepreneurs.

Placing this incident in historical context, in the America that existed between 1877 and 1950, few African Americans had an opportunity to show the class exhibited by Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson. During this earlier period, across 805 counties in the United States, more than 4000 known lynchings took place, mostly with impunity in the Deep South. Last month in Montgomery, Alabama, on April 26, 2018, the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened, its exhibits documenting this unconscionable brutality with the names and circumstances of the victims engraved on steel markers hanging from a vaulted ceiling. A 15-minute feature was broadcast in the April 8 edition of 60 Minutes, with museum director Bryan Stevenson giving a guided tour.

Stevenson observes that over the three centuries of the American history of slavery, lynchings, segregation, and an incomplete civil rights movement, a troublesome legacy endures. Lingering deep psychological damage—to white people as well as blacks—haunts our nation today. African Americans have been inflicted with an experience of “terrorism through menace, traumatization, and intimidation” not just committed on individuals, but affecting the entire black community. Stevenson stresses that because Americans in general have not educated themselves on this history, a pervasive “narrative of denial” still poses an ominous obstacle to engaging in meaningful dialogue and bringing forward corrective measures to be put into universal societal practice.


Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson was born in 1960 and grew up in a poor, rural, racially segregated region of Delaware which had, in his words, “a racialized hierarchy that required symbols, markers, and constant reinforcement. Confederate flags were proudly displayed throughout the region, boldly and defiantly marking the cultural, social, and political landscape.” The grinding daily reality for African Americans was one of marginalization and exclusion, with no choice but to live in “colored sections” in cities, towns, and rural areas, often without indoor plumbing, regular employment, or independent means of transportation. He reflects: “It seemed that we were all cloaked in an unwelcome garment of racial difference that constrained, confined, and restricted us.”

Nonetheless, with perseverance, family support, and making the most of available opportunities, Stevenson completed college and was accepted at Harvard law school for post-graduate studies. Through an internship with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee, which advocated for competent legal representation for condemned poor prisoners on death row, he found what would become a lifelong commitment: establishing and progressively expanding the services of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).

The initial purpose of the EJI was to help wrongfully convicted prisoners on death row in the South. Gradually this evolved into working to eliminate the death penalty, then into addressing prison conditions and excessive punishments. Broader initiatives would follow: nationally addressing criminal justice racial bias, ending unfair and inequitable sentencing, aiding the poor and indigent with needed legal services, helping mentally ill prisoners, stopping children from being put into adult jails and prisons, confronting abuses of power by police and prosecutors, establishing reentry programs for released offenders, and educating people about racial history and the need for legal system reforms and racial justice.

Over the course of 30 years, EJI influence has significantly expanded and become recognized as a major leader in addressing injustices and inequities in the US criminal justice system. Stevenson himself has won a half-dozen cases argued before the US Supreme Court and several hundred in State and US District Appeals courts. He zealously continues to crusade for more basic changes in attitudes and policies, pointing out that since the late 1970s America has gone overboard on “law and order” mentality and become the world’s most shameful “incarceration nation.” Most jarringly, over the past four decades, the US prison population has increased more than seven-fold, from 300,000 to 2.3 million. Of every three male black babies, one will be incarcerated; overall, it’s projected that one of 15 Americans born in the 21st century will go to jail or prison. State and federal governmental spending on incarcerations has risen from $7 billion in 1980 to $80 billion. The cascading effects of such national realities are devastating to individuals, families, communities, and wider society.


As Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. noted, the long arc of history tends toward justice. For indigenous, racial, and ethnic groups in America since the 16th century, however, the rise has too often been both blunted and bloody—especially for African Americans who, after all, never asked to come to the North American continent, but once here against their will have endured injustices for more than 300 years. It is a far cry from slavery and lynchings to coffee-shop arrests and detainments, but a pernicious strand of racism remains obstinately woven into the social fabric. Institutional progress comes slowly, but with educational and attitudinal nurturing, individual change can take place relatively quickly. In this instant-information age, let us hope that injustices occurring before the nation’s eyes prompt take-home lessons enabling us to weave an improved and diversified social fabric.

3 thoughts on “A Difficult Learning Curve: Starbucks in Context

  1. MLK Jr stated, “The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slave, a legal entity, but it failed to free the Negro, a person.” Douglas A. Blackmon darkly illuminates this sad reality in his 2008 “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.”

    Once Union troops departed from occupying the South a dozen years after the Civil War ended, Southern states & localities rewrote laws & social codes, effectively wiping out the 13th, 14th, & 15th Amendments to the Constitution (emancipation, civil rights & voting rights). Between 1877 and beyond WWII—three generations of hardened relationships between whites & blacks in the South—many millions of former slaves were, through intimidation and overt violence, reduced to effectively a long period of Neoslavery. These realities were inherited by the 1960s Civil Rights Movement—a still far-from-complete process of instituting dignity & justice for all Americans.

    The legacy of this dark period of history has been, and obviously still remains, perhaps the most difficult barrier to a truly just society. America’s educational, informational, & societal organizational systems have largely failed to deliver the knowledge & awarenesses necessary for enlightened changes of attitudes & practices among far too many Americans. Our learning curve will remain a challenge unless & until we arrive at deeper understandings of how racism became so infectiously embedded in America’s 400-year history.


  2. Americans’ rights are only as good as the enforcement of these guarantees under “laws of the land.” Blackmon details not only how Southern states & localities passed laws that circumvented the 13th, 14th, & 15th Amendments, but how federal circuit courts and even the Supreme Court nullified the rights contained in these. The most devastating Supreme Court rulings were 1) an 1883 decision declaring the Civil Rights Act of 1875 (which forced whites to comply with granting legal & voting rights to blacks) to be a LOCAL issue, 2) an 1896 decision which legitimized white & black “SEPARATE but equal” systems of education & other social norms, and 3) a 1904 decision declaring legal measures applied to “peony” (“debt slavery”) to be decided LOCALLY.

    The overall practical effect of these local, state, & federal laws was to impose upon freed blacks & their descendants new forms of deprivations & punishments enforced by intimidation, fines, arrests, & forced labor. Any black person unable to pay a fine became subject to being placed in a forced labor camp, operated through the “leasing” connivance of state or local law and white owned enterprises or large farms such as coal & ore mines, iron & steel plants, the timber industry, sawmills, brick factories, quarries, railroad construction, agricultural labors, and county road & utility projects.

    Working conditions were commonly appalling & hazardous to health. State laws granted the right to shackle-&-chain “prisoners” (anyone deemed in violation of local trumped up laws subjectively determined). Appropriate food, clothing, & shelter were marginal, at best. Whippings for any “disciplinary” reason were legally granted to the white overseers. Intimidation & even violence became commonplace against any whites who openly criticized or brought attention to these abusive systems.

    Cumulatively between 1877 and the 1930s, such systems operated with variations across regions of the South. Chain gangs and tenant farming then replaced the harsher operations. It would not be until after WWII that corrective measures began being phased in. The 1960s Civil Rights Movement’s confrontations eventually forced meaningful revisions of national laws, such as they are. It strains the imagination to assess the psychological, emotional, economic, & social impacts this multigenerational era has had upon American blacks. Its legacy remains for us as individuals and a nation to at long last resolve.


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