AILSA CHANG, HOST:
All right. Protesters took over a Starbucks shop in Philadelphia today.
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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) A whole lot of coffee, a whole lot of wack.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) A whole lot of coffee, a whole lot of wack.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Starbucks coffee is anti-black.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Starbucks...
CHANG: Starbucks coffee is anti-black. This scene is a reaction to an arrest made at a Center City Starbucks last week. Two black men were sitting in the coffee shop on Thursday. Starbucks employees called 911, alleging the men were trespassing. The workers said the men had asked to use the restroom but were told no because they hadn't bought anything, and then they refused to leave. Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch has been thinking a lot about the questions this incident raises about racial bias. And he's with us now. Hey, Gene.
GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa. How are you?
CHANG: I'm good. You're actually from Philly, right?
DEMBY: Yeah. Born and bred.
CHANG: So a lot of people are seeing this as an instance of racial profiling or what's been called out-of-place policing. What is that?
DEMBY: So out-of-place policing is basically the idea that police engage with people who don't look like they belong there. And that's usually just racial profiling masquerading as spatial profiling. And it's true that this part of Center City is well-off. It's mostly white in terms of what its residents look like. When I was a teenager, I worked at a Chick-fil-A at a mall that is no longer there, but a mall that is not too far from Rittenhouse Square.
And there was a way in which I felt out of place, in part because, you know, I was a 16-year-old black kid. And I was - and even though it's a fairly diverse place, when I would walk through there at night, you know, after the sort of after-work rush would have died down, I was very cognizant of the fact that I was in, you know, a pretty, you know, wealthy neighborhood. There's a way in which I always felt, like, out of place and visible, right? And a report last year from member station WHYY said that nearly 7 of the 10 police stops in that area in 2015 were of black people. So even though there is this diversity of people who are walking around the streets there, there is a disparity in who's being stopped by the police in that neighborhood.
CHANG: OK. In this case, though, it was a Starbucks employee who called the police. So if there is some racial bias going on here, does it lie with that employee? Does it lie with Starbucks, the company? Or does it lie with the police who were called in and arrested these guys?
DEMBY: Right. And that's a great question. And I actually called up Phillip Atiba Goff, who is the president of the Center for Policing Equity. And he said that it's really hard to partition police bias from public bias because black men are so broadly perceived as threats. And that perception is treated as reasonable by the police, that if you're scared of a black man, if you think a black person is violent or dangerous or out of place, he says that your bias will have all the structural support. The police will defer to your suspicions. And there's no consequences for anyone's biases here, anyone's ostensible biases either - not the Starbucks employee, not the police officers. The only consequences fall on the two men who are arrested and spent hours behind bars.
CHANG: But, I mean, Starbucks famously has pushed itself to be out there as the third place for Americans. You know, it's not home. It's not work. But it's a place where people can sit and talk and read and write. What does this incident do to that image?
DEMBY: Yeah. I mean, Starbucks - there's this weird tension here for Starbucks, right? It's a private commercial space that is trying to be a public one. It's trying to function like a public space. But we know that public spaces, whether we're talking about parks or whether we're talking about malls, they're contested spaces. They're racialized spaces. Starbucks of course is famously, like, the avatar of gentrification in a lot of places. And people assert their ownership of these spaces in different ways. And, you know, the rules for these spaces are not uniform or clear. Do I need to buy something to sit at Starbucks? I mean, do I need to buy something to use the bathroom? I mean, if you go to a different Starbucks, you might get a different response.
CHANG: Yes. Some bathrooms at Starbucks have keypads, and some don't.
DEMBY: Absolutely. Judging from the response on Twitter, the patrons of Starbucks don't have, like, a set understanding of what the rules are. So this is almost as if the Starbucks official policy, whether it exists or not, is sort of immaterial to this conversation in a lot of ways. And it is because these questions become questions of discretion of individual people, that's where bias can creep in. That's where people's individual preconceptions can sort of shape the way they experience.
CHANG: Because some individual employees will serve as gatekeepers to these pseudo-public places that Starbucks deems itself to be.
DEMBY: Absolutely. And some of those people will say, sure, you can come in. And some of those people will call the police because they don't think you belong there.
CHANG: Gene Demby co-hosts NPR's Code Switch podcast. Thanks very much, Gene.
DEMBY: Thank you, Ailsa.
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