Impact vs. Intent: Inside the ‘Racism’ at a Philadelphia Starbucks

by Christopher Paslay

Because only people of color can accurately analyze racism, and that whites — because of their privileged status in a white supremacist society — have no ability to be objective about racial matters, a white person’s intentions can be rendered meaningless if a person of color interprets them as racist.

In April of 2018, two black men were removed from a Starbucks in the Rittenhouse section of Philadelphia by police for refusing to make a purchase. The men asked to use the bathroom and were told by a Starbucks manager that the restrooms were for paying customers only, and were asked to leave. The men, who were apparently meeting a friend for a business meeting, didn’t leave or buy anything.  

They sat down at a table, disregarding the manager, who was a white female, so she called the police; because of a loitering problem in the Rittenhouse Starbucks, managers were apparently instructed to reserve the store for paying customers only. “Hi, I have two gentlemen in my café that are refusing to make a purchase or leave,” the manager said, according the 911 call. “I’m at the Starbucks at 18th and Spruce.” 

The police came and respectfully tried to explain to the men, for nearly 15 minutes, that they needed to leave or be charged with trespassing. According to Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross, the police gave the men three chances to leave, but they didn’t move.  Finally, the two men were escorted out in handcuffs, but not arrested. The incident was captured on cellphone video by a woman in the store, who then put it up on the Internet. The video went viral, prompting a personal apology from Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, and causing the closing of 8,000 stores for anti-bias training. 

The Rittenhouse Starbucks was soon boycotted and vandalized. The manager was quietly transferred to another store, and Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross soon caved to pressure and apologized for making a mistake. Later that month, Starbucks issued a new company policy that stated all were welcome at Starbucks — paying customers or not.

The ruling in the court of public opinion was that the Philadelphia police officers (one of whom was black) and the Starbucks manager were racist, if not consciously, unconsciously. They suffered from implicit bias, and their intentions didn’t matter. Sure, the store manager was only following store policy at the time, and the police were only following the law in regard to loitering on private property, but it was the impact of their actions that truly counted; the two black men felt harassed and discriminated against, which is all that mattered. 

Believing that the two black men could have respected the authority of the manager and purchased a cookie or cup of coffee for a few dollars or left the store, was apparently unreasonable. Social justice advocates insisted that if the men would have been white, the manager would have left them alone; defenders of the manger and police insisted that if the men would have been white, their arrests would have gone unnoticed. There was no way of definitively proving any of this, except for the accusation of implicit bias, which was all that was needed to prove the manager and police guilty of racism.

There’s a growing movement within whiteness studies to “think impact, not intent.”

“I think intentions are irrelevant,” anti-racist educator Robin DiAngelo said in an interview with Teaching Tolerance. “It’s nice to know you had good intentions, but the impact of what you did was harmful. And we need to let go of our intentions and attend to the impact, to focus on that.” 

Because only people of color can accurately analyze racism, and that whites — because of their privileged status in a white supremacist society — have no ability to be objective about racial matters, a white person’s intentions can be rendered meaningless if a person of color interprets them as racist. This perspective is effectively gaining ground due to a concept known as implicit bias, which underpins a very large majority of anti-racist ideology.

Unfortunately, the actual science behind implicit bias — a person’s so-called unconscious discriminatory attitudes which directly influence their behavior — is relatively weak.  Research continues to show Harvard’s Implicit Association Test, which is viewed as the Holy Grail of racial bias testing, is invalid and unreliable. In the words of New York Magazine writer Jesse Singal, “there’s very little evidence to support the claim that the IAT meaningfully predicts anything.” 

Singal writes:

In fact, the test is riddled with statistical problems — problems severe enough that it’s fair to ask whether it is effectively “misdiagnosing” the millions of people who have taken it, the vast majority of whom are likely unaware of its very serious shortcomings. There’s now solid research published in a top journal strongly suggesting the test cannot even meaningfully predict individual behavior. And if the test can’t predict individual behavior, it’s unclear exactly what it does do or why it should be the center of so many conversations and programs geared at fighting racism. 

This hasn’t stopped the whiteness studies movement from using implicit bias to forward their narrative on racism and white supremacy, however. Despite the absence of hard data, anti-racist educators continue to use implicit bias to focus on impact over intent, claiming the unconscious biases of well-meaning whites are causing them to perpetuate racism despite their intentions to do otherwise. 

So when a situation arises between a white individual and a person of color, and the person of color feels slighted or victimized by racist behavior, the intention of the white person doesn’t matter; it’s just the impact of the white person’s behavior that counts. Furthermore, because whites have no racial objectivity, only the person of color can determine if the behavior was insulting or racist, as there’s no co-creation or co-responsibility between the races when it comes to antiracism.

Is this a recipe for racial healing and understanding?  Hardly.  But it is good for increasing the power of identity politics, which is a major goal of the anti-racist agenda. 

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