$1 and a Dream: The Philly Starbucks Settlement and the “People Problem” of Racism

“It’s not just a Black people thing. It’s a Black people thing.”

After being arrested for simply standing in a Starbucks, a Black man went on national television to assure white people that it wasn’t about race. A Black man named Rashon whose accent echoes Cassidy and Meek Mill told millions that the problem is not racism. An undeniably, unmistakably Black man used part of his 15 minutes of fame to lull white America back into their coma-like sleep where overt racism enabled by a system that functions to ensure Black people are the permanent underclass is not a race issue but an issue of a few bad individuals.

And after two weeks of hearing how the Starbucks employee mistook these two men for thugs because of the way they were dressed when in fact the two attend college, ignoring what all of us who went to college learned after watching dudes leave Managerial Accounting and sell dime bags on the yard, which is that thug and college student are not and have never been mutually exclusive identities, and endorsing the politics of respectability which assume that Black who attend college deserve the basic humanity that Black people who haven’t attended college do not, yesterday we learned that these two had settled out of court with the city of Philadelphia and Starbucks. The amount and most of the specifics of the settlement with the coffee giant are confidential (sans the detail that Starbucks, as part of the agreement, is also giving the men the opportunity to complete their undergraduate degrees for free through a partnership with Arizona State University), but the men agreed to settle with the city for $1 each, a symbolic gesture. Additionally, a $200,000 grant will create a program for young entrepreneurs. The grant will establish “a pilot curriculum for public high school students to develop the skills necessary to pursue their dream of being entrepreneurs.”

Yes, these young men settled what could have and should have been a hefty lawsuit against the same city whose police department is notorious for bombing a house occupied by unarmed Black women, men and children, and beating an unarmed man as he attempted to flee the fire caused by that bomb, for four quarters and a couple hundred thousand dollars tossed in the wind at the problematic and myopic dreams of inspiring children to open a business. Surely, the “people problem” that sees Black people arrested for simply standing around in a coffee chain which famously has a policy that their facility and its Wi-Fi is free and available to all can be solved by funneling money into a program which will no doubt see the bulk of the $200,000 grant spent on salaries for staff and not reach the children its allegedly supposed to guide to owning their own businesses. And not even having demanding that the $200,000 is earmarked explicitly and specifically for Black children who belong to the race least likely to own a business in this country will certainly mean change.

Indeed the solution to the “people problem” of racism created and maintained by capitalism and its purveyors is absolutely pushing capitalism onto children while refusing to force a city infamous for one of the most racist, violent police departments in the country, and as such the world, to pay for being complicit in criminalizing Black existence.  The “people” with the “problem” see Black people matriculating at institutions in this country’s racist higher education system as the resolution since the real problem is Black people being uneducated and not the system. But most notably, the problem with the people, which is most definitely not a problem of racism, can be resolved by Black people standing firm in their commitment to prove that injustice committed against us are not worthy of large, life-changing monetary judgments by instead negotiating symbolic judgments that assure white America which has a people problem and not a racism problem that Black people just want to be treated fairly and part of that fairness is not financial equity.

But the problem of racism, the one that has been saddled to the backs of Black people for four centuries, the one that motivated a white woman employed and emboldened by a corporation that sells gentrification with the same vigor it does lattes to call in the state’s security forces whose primary and paramount purpose is to keep order by persecuting Blackness to remove two Black men for standing around, the one that celebrates Black men for being arrested peacefully despite the outrageous and unlawful circumstances of the arrest, the one that is not a people problem but is indisputably and exclusive a white people problem, can only be solved by money.

Appealing to white morality and the phantom collective white conscience has not, over the past 400 years, changed the collective Black condition. Simply, there is no white conscience. And more simply, we should be taking our reparations and equity however they come.

Liberal white kudos has the value of dust. White people’s applause for not making it about money and instead about change is nothing but a guilt trip keeping us invested in the idea that if we are just moral enough, understanding enough and forgiving enough, white people will be kinder, as if their kindness, and not the money they owe the descendants of the Black people who built – literally laid the brick and mortar, paved the roads and harvested the crops – this empire, is the ultimate redemption. These young men bought into the notion that the money they are owed not just for their arrest but for being part of the group of designated guinea pigs in America’s perpetual racist, capitalist experiments would be better left on the books of the city of Philadelphia rather than in their own bank accounts securing their and their kin’s futures.

You know what’s more symbolic than accepting $1? Commas and zeroes. The same commas and zeroes Starbucks has amassed by selling coffee sweetened with the sugar cane Black people died and were dismembered harvesting for centuries. The same commas and zeroes in the

paychecks direct deposited in the accounts of the cops who used the power bestowed upon them by the state to do the bidding of a white woman who viewed Blackness as an annoyance.

And ain’t nothing more symbolic than making corporations and the state part ways with the dollar signs that are a symbol of their unwavering investment in the business of racism.

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