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Michael A. Cohen

Racism and white privilege in America

Protesters in Philadelphia rally against the arrest of two black men at a Starbucks.
Protesters in Philadelphia rally against the arrest of two black men at a Starbucks. Tom Gralish/The Philadelphia Inquirer/AP

I’M A WRITER, which means I spend a lot of time in coffee shops. In fact, I’m writing this column in one right now. I’ve spent a good part of the past 20 years toiling away among other overly caffeinated workers, pecking away at my laptop.

More often than not, I buy a cup of coffee and something to eat. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes, particularly when I’m on the road, I sneak in to use the Wi-Fi. That’s especially true when it comes to Starbucks, which is a beacon of free and dependable Wi-Fi, comfortable seating, and a complete lack of scrutiny from its employees as to whether I’ve purchased anything.


My experience is not unusual. Never once have I been asked to leave and I’ve certainly never been arrested for trespassing in a coffee shop.

But then again, I’m a white person.

Last week’s arrest of two black men in a Starbucks in Philadelphia is a reminder not just of the endemic nature of racism in America, but also what the unstated yet sizable advantages of white privilege look like.

The two men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, were meeting a friend for an afternoon meeting. Nelson asked to use the bathroom but was told that it was for customers only. So he sat down, without purchasing anything, and waited.

What happened next could only happen to a black man in America. Two minutes after they arrived at the shop, the store manager, who is white, called 911. Six police officers arrived and asked Nelson and Robinson to leave. They refused and were immediately arrested for what the police called, and I’m not making this up, “defiant trespassing.”

This is such a perfect example of how racism works in America that it should be taught as a mandatory lesson in every school in America. This is something that would never happen to two white people. The only situation I can imagine where two white men quietly hanging out in a Starbucks would merit a call to the police is if they were homeless. Even then, I’m not so sure.


As my colleague, Renée Graham, wrote this week, “To be black is to always be in the wrong place at the wrong time because, in America, there is never a right place for black people. . . . Everything black people do is weighted by irrational white fear. It’s mentally exhausting to always be on guard, even during mundane moments like waiting in a coffee shop.”

White privilege is a loaded term and it’s one that applies to some white Americans more than others (i.e., there are significant differences around class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion). But here’s an example of where white privilege is universal — white Americans don’t have to worry too much about the police being called on them while waiting to meet a friend at a Starbucks. The mental exhaustion of how members of another race perceive you is not something that white people need to spend much mental energy addressing.

And let’s be honest, if white Americans had to worry that something they do on a regular basis — like going to Starbucks — could get them arrested, a lot of things in this country would change.


This doesn’t mean that every white American is a stone cold racist. There are plenty of us who were truly outraged by this arrest. Did the female store manager call the police explicitly because the two men were black and she didn’t want them in her store? Maybe. Or perhaps this was more an example of implicit racism. But it doesn’t really matter, because it’s not about her feelings. Rather it’s about the daily toll that racism in America exacts — and the extent to which it is merely an abstraction for those of us who don’t experience it.

When your skin is white, racism is something of a thought experiment. It’s not a daily experience of frustration, annoyance, humiliation, and fear. Melissa DePino, the woman who recorded the arrest and put the video on YouTube, put it well: “People ignore this kind of stuff. They don’t believe that it happens. People are saying that there must be more to this story. There is not. This would never happen to someone who looks like me. People don’t believe black people when they say this stuff happens. It does. They want to know the extenuating circumstances. There are none.”

It’s never easy to put ourselves in the shoes of someone else, but if ever a news story demanded we do so, this would be it. For black Americans, this arrest is not a teachable moment — it’s a reality of life in America. But the rest of us can and should take a lesson from it — and ask ourselves how we’d feel about going to jail merely because of the color of our skin.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.