The Starbucks Incident Demonstrates the Connection Between Privilege and the Police
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By: Lisa M. Hayes – Confluence Daily is your daily news source for women in the know.
In the last few days, we’ve all heard a lot about the incident at Starbucks that resulted in two black men getting arrested after asking to use the restroom. To be clear, they were more polite than I am. I’ve walked into a Starbucks making a beeline to their restroom without asking and with no intention of ordering a coffee more times than I can count. Starbucks keeps a tidy public restroom. No one has ever looked twice at me. I’m a white woman.
There will be a lot of conversation moving forward about implicit bias. Those are two very tricky words that basically describe how you can be racist and not even know it – and you can be, for real. In fact, if you don’t consciously check your biases it’s quite likely you innately favor or trust people who look like yourself and distrust people who look different. It’s easy to like people less the less they look like you without even being aware.
Then, taking it one logical step further, it’s easy to be more and more afraid of someone the less and less they look like you. That can start smelling like racism pretty quick if you’re not careful. And yes, it can all play out without you even knowing, hence the term “unconscious” bias.
Unconscious bias is an important conversation to have, and most white people are uncomfortable with the topic. However, the conversation I’m inspired to by the Starbucks crap show is one about the connection between your willingness to dial up the police and privilege.
There is no more explicit indication of your level of privilege than how likely you are to call the cops.
White people who live in upper-class neighborhoods are very likely to call the police. Their comfort level with the police is unquestioningly high. They call the cops to report annoyances with other people, over petty neighborhood disputes. Upper-class white people will dial 911 to report noise violations frequently or to report suspicious strangers doing nothing wrong.
High-income white people are significantly less likely to be in any danger, but substantially more likely to call the police than any other demographic. Why not? There’s no risk. Wealthy white people tend to treat the police as a private security force.
Middle-class white people will call the police if they think they’ve been a victim of a crime or if they are afraid. Middle-class white people are way more likely to think something has happened to a loved one than they are going to get arrested if a cop shows up at the door. So, they aren’t particularly alarmed when they interact with the police casually.
White Middle-class people will dial 911 if there’s a fight down the street or they witness an accident. They will call the cops if their pet goes missing or their bike is stolen. They see these types of things as very legitimate emergencies. They don’t see the police as working for them in the same way upper-class white people do, but they don’t hesitate to make the call if it’s necessary – and necessary is a very personal distinction.
Poor white folks don’t like to call the police. They are way more likely to have warrants out for their arrests or be living with someone who does. Often these warrants are for the kind of stuff other people would easily avoid, like failure to pay fines or failure to appear in court. Poor people frequently end up in debt to the court for a variety of reasons, and they know it.
Additionally, there is also a thing called economic bias. Poor people know they look guilty to the police for no other reason than they are poor. They don’t like dialing 911, but if it’s really going down, they will. Although poor white people don’t like doing it, it’s not because they are afraid the cops will kill them. It’s because they don’t want to take the risk of getting tossed in the back of the car and taken back to the station.
And you might notice in this hierarchy of comfort relating to the police, we are talking about white people, and if you’re a person of color, you know why. There is no comfort there.
In 2017 police killed 1,100 people and over a quarter of them were black even though they represent less than a quarter of the population. Police are way more likely to shoot an unarmed black suspect than a white one.
And as a white person, you might tell yourself that’s because black people interact with the police more – which might be true because the unconscious bias is a thing with the police also. Police are way more likely to determine a black person is a suspect than a white person and act accordingly.
Additionally, if you’re black, any interaction with the police can be immediately and extremely dangerous. Most black people are afraid to call the police even if they are in immediate danger because they are afraid that even as victims they will be “accidentally” shot by the police. They are afraid to dial 911 in emergencies because that really happens and black people know it.
And here’s something you should understand: Wealthy black people don’t like to call the police either, for anything, ever, for the very same reasons.
Wealthy black people also have to “train” their children how to handle a traffic stop to avoid being killed by a cop after being pulled over for a broken taillight. In fact, wealthy black people may be more afraid for their children while driving because cops are innately suspicious of a sixteen-year-old black kid driving a BMW.
If you’re black and you’re rich, you can afford the fancy cars, and you can buy a house in the high-end neighborhoods. You can pay the tuition and put your kids in the right private schools. However, the one thing you can’t buy is privilege, or at least the kind of privilege that matters when you are face to face with a cop.
It’s also important to note here that black people aren’t the only ones affected by this issue. Native Americans are proportionately more likely to be killed by the police than black people are. Hispanic people are afraid of the cops for a good reason. If you’re not white, you’re at risk, and there is no way around it.
So, what does all this have to do with the Starbucks in Pennsylvania? I have to believe the majority of white people do not understand the relationship between privilege and the police. How can they? You can only see the world through your own eyes. If you’re not trying to understand another person’s experience, as in really making an effort, you won’t. And white people don’t like to talk about things like implicit bias and privilege.
However, when those Starbucks employees picked up the phone and 911 to report two black men loitering, they were legitimately putting the lives of those two black men at risk. Additionally, they were putting lives of everyone else in the store at risk. Anytime an armed person walks into a situation the chances of someone getting shot go up exponentially, even, or maybe especially if that person is a cop.
The only sure way to avoid being shot by the police is to avoid any contact with the police.
When a white person initiates contact with police, they are putting people who don’t look like them in the kind of risk they can’t ever fully understand. Those Starbucks employees were literally putting the lives of those men in the balance because they were annoyed or afraid for no good reason. It ended with a lot of media attention on a very bad situation. It could have been so much worse.
And that’s the thing, as a white person, when I interact with the police I never walk away from that interaction thankful to be alive. However, I can assure you those men in that Starbucks went home that night and prayed prayers of gratitude for another day, genuinely grateful all they had to experience was embarrassment or humiliation.
This is just like everytime a black man drives away from a routine traffic stop he breathes a serious sigh of relief and has to check himself to make sure he’s calmed enough to drive to his destination safely. Every time a black person interacts with the police is a terrifying, potentially trauma-inducing, and possibly deadly experience.
So, if your bike gets stolen and you feel safe to dial 911 to report it, even if you’re wondering how you’re going to pay the rent this month, take a moment to be grateful for your privilege. You’ve got something money can’t buy and not wanting to talk about your privilege doesn’t make it any less real.
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