The ubiquitous coffeehouse chain Starbucks is at the center of a scandal—the familiar kind fueled by new media’s obsessive litigation of grievances that have a perceived societal dimension. This one occurred in Philadelphia where two young black men were humiliated and led out of the café in handcuffs by police. They were accused of trespassing and declined to leave when asked, saying that they were merely waiting for a friend. The story of the incident went viral, and it became a scandal—justifiably so. The decision to prosecute this episode of harmless loitering is suspicious, and the insult these men suffered deserves redress. Asking whether racial bias was a factor here is a perfectly valid question, and that deserved to be investigated. But that’s not what has happened.
Within 24 hours of this incident, the store’s manager had issued a formal apology. So, too, did the corporation. Twenty-four hours after that, that supervisor resigned. If there was an investigation here, it was a quick one. The store itself soon became the site of protests. “Anti-blackness anywhere is anti-blackness everywhere,” one protester chanted. “We don’t want this Starbucks to make any money today,” another demonstrator told reporters. By 1 p.m., the protesters had achieved their aim; the store was forced to close for the day.
It wasn’t long before this incident involving one Starbucks location and three people came to be seen as a reflection of this sprawling multinational company and the United States as a whole. Rosalind Brewer, Starbucks COO and a young African-American woman, called the incident a “teachable moment for all of us” and recommended “unconscious-bias” training for every Starbucks staffer. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson joined ABC’s “Good Morning America” to personally apologize to the men involved in this incident when protesters interrupted his appearance. “A whole lot of racism, a whole lot of crap, Starbucks coffee is anti-black,” they chanted. You can’t blame these demonstrators for noticing that the terms of engagement had broadened significantly.
Who knows? Maybe there is a culture of implicit racial bias at Starbucks. On Monday, as protesters were shutting down this Philadelphia-based branch, another Starbucks location in Los Angeles was also being accused of racial bias. In January, a white non-customer at that location managed to finagle a bathroom entry code out of a barista when a black non-customer could not. Maybe these two incidents—separated by almost four months and 3,000 miles—are related. Maybe it was wise for national news media and the chain’s protesters to skip right past personal agency and permissive local cultures to assume this is a reflection on all 13,900-plus U.S. Starbucks locations, to say nothing of the society in which they are situated. After all, that’s precisely what the chain’s executives did. In fact, the Starbucks C-suite’s willingness to lend credence to the accusation that their company was rotten with pervasive racial prejudice likely fueled the pushback that the chain received from social-justice activists.
Starbucks is one of an increasing number of firms that wears its liberal politics on its aprons. A few years back, its baristas were encouraged to write “race together” on their customer’s cups explicitly to encourage discomfiting racial dialogue in their stores. It has aggressively promoted same-sex marriage on its products and has financially backed Planned Parenthood. In response to President Donald Trump’s “travel ban,” Starbucks dedicated itself to hiring at least 10,000 refugees. The company’s increasingly impatient shareholders have routinely questioned the value of alienating socially conservative coffee-drinkers, but now it seems time to question whether its affinity for the left is yielding diminishing returns even among its allies. It is difficult to avoid concluding that the scope of these protests is augmented by the fact that, for the social justice left, Starbucks is a soft target.
Starbucks isn’t the only progressive ally that has received no special dispensation for being “woke.” A Washington Post report on Tuesday illustrates the Starbucks phenomenon with a dispatch from a liberal church dedicated to racial justice and economic egalitarianism that has come under fire from its confederates. According to the Post, the racial conflict at the 1,100-member All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington D.C. is indicative of a number of racial conflicts that the Unitarian Universalist Association has helped resolve in the last year.
The scandal involves the resignation of an African-American reverend who alleged that she was passed over for career advancement and judged more harshly than her white counterpart behind the pulpit (who, by the way, claims to have dedicated his career to the promotion of social justice). She even alleged that the congregants of this racially conscious church were themselves subtly racist because of the “micro-aggressions” she endured. Specifically, that effrontery was evinced by the number of church-goers who referred to her by her first name rather than her title. Maybe all these men and women of faith were subtly racist; maybe they were just friendly. In either case, this particular community’s predisposition to treat even dubious allegations of racial bias seriously will ensure that this grievance is resolved to the complainant’s satisfaction.
It is easy to see why this kind of activism is more satisfying than, say, going on about Chick-Fil-A’s Christian values. Despite a six-year-long liberal campaign dedicated to educating the public on the deliciousness of its products, the benefits and time off afforded its employees, and franchising opportunities in underserved urban markets, this chain just keeps on expanding. Imagine that. Routinely rebuffed assaults on a fortified position are exhausting. They are nowhere near as rewarding as a direct attack on a receptive target that yields a quick and gratifying victory. That explains why social justice activists are increasingly focused on exacting concessions from like minds: young adult novelists, liberal filmmakers, Hollywood executives, painters, restauranteurs, university professors and administrators, socially conscious corporations, and the left-of-center politicians who have folded these activists into their core constituencies.
These intramural feuds are transforming the progressive movement from within, but it’s not clear that the social-justice movement has secured anything other than the illusion of efficacy.