Editor’s Note: Jesse Williams is an actor, activist and Advancement Project board member. Judith Browne Dianis is executive director of Advancement Project’s national office. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.
For a few hours on Tuesday, thousands of Americans will suffer. They will be without their morning jolt, afternoon pick-me-up and end of day treat from corporate giant Starbucks coffee. People around the country will find the doors of about 8,000 Starbucks stores locked as its employees receive racial bias training. The exercise is an effort to save face after some bad press, resulting from a Philadelphia Starbucks’ criminalization of two black men who were only doing what so many others do: hanging out in Starbucks.
While these folks struggle without their usual coffee fix, there’s another segment of Americans who are suffering too: people of color who must constantly face having their very presence in public spaces challenged by white Americans and the police. Over the past month, the presence of black people has also been challenged while playing on a golf course, moving into an apartment, napping in a college dorm and barbecuing in a park.
But these were just a few indignities shared publicly. Daily, without acknowledgment and in the absence of a smartphone camera or social media campaign, black people have similar – and regular – experiences when they are in white space and thought to be “out of place.”
This white space has been protected throughout history. Of course, during slavery, black presence in white space was highly regulated. And, even after slavery, despite the adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which on paper granted black Americans many rights they had so long been denied, the freedom to be present in proximity to white people was restricted.
This was solidified by the Supreme Court in its 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine. Jim Crow laws then further advanced the exclusion of blacks from public and private spaces for the sake of white people, and in service of white supremacy. “Whites Only” signs made that all too clear.
When the civil rights movement took root in the mid-20th century, it brought change to the racist laws and the “Whites Only” signs disappeared – but only in principle. Police continue to practice enforcing unwritten rules of exclusionary white space. From their founding, police were – and continue to be – used for social control of black people. From yesteryear’s slave patrols to today’s response to unnecessary 911 calls, the police rush in to protect white space.
Whether 911 calls are made because of hate, implicit bias or the perception that black people don’t belong wherever they may be, when the police come, they often criminalize the perceived trespassers, automatically assuming that the white caller’s accusations are correct and the black person is guilty. Unfortunately, these run-ins can also turn into excessive use of force – sometimes deadly.
The fact is that we are not out of place. It is wrong to hold black people to protocols that suggest “appropriate” ways to act, speak and wear our hair, or dictate where it’s acceptable for us to be present. We face this bias in our workplaces, our children’s schools and in our vehicles – everywhere.
Our organization, The Advancement Project, understands that people of color, including our schoolchildren, are at risk just for being black, brown or immigrants. For 19 years, we have worked with grass-roots organizations around the country that seek racial justice, fair policies and alternatives to over-policing in our communities and schools. We continue to support research, mobilize and litigate on behalf of communities who no longer want to feel threatened for just being.
Yes, public safety is important and well-trained police are helpful and needed in dire situations and egregious emergencies. When an unfamiliar black or brown person is in your community, when a group of two or more black people are gathered in a public or private space, or when we are speaking our native languages, calling the police serves no purpose but to criminalize, arrest and cast us away.
Police should not be used to protect white space from nonwhite people and we most definitely should not subscribe to the forced incarceration and removal of immigrants and refugees, especially when the administration is only targeting people from black and brown countries.
While Starbucks has taken steps to use last month’s incident as a teachable moment for its countless employees, these occurrences will continue. The rhetoric from the White House has exacerbated the problem, opening the door to increased overt racist behavior. Complaints of violations of white space will not end until we grapple with the history of white supremacy and the role of police in black existence. This requires building an understanding of the trauma that faces black people whose presence is challenged and who must defend that presence to police.
Until we truly confront this issue, many public spaces may as well have “Whites Only” signs hanging in the doorway.