With Fresh Eyes: A National Failure


By Rich Nelson

The two young gentlemen were there for a meeting. They were waiting for a third party to discuss a real estate opportunity.  What followed was yet another illustration of racial divide and injustice in this country. Rashon Nelson was told by a Philadelphia Starbucks employee that he could not use the restroom because he was not a paying customer.  He and his business partner, Donte Robinson, both 23, thought nothing of this and continued to wait for their guest to arrive until, minutes later, police officers walked in and approached them.  They knew at that point the manager had called in a complaint.  Although they did not put up any resistance, they were handcuffed, arrested for “loitering.”  Another patron videotaped the episode, which went viral.  Several white customers, regulars at Starbucks, and interviewed in the aftermath of the arrests, stated emphatically that they often spend time there working on their laptop, without ordering anything, and they have never once been singled out in the way Nelson and Robinson were.

An isolated incident?  In 2018 America, that should be our expectation.  There continues to be, however, a pattern of discriminatory and targeted profiling, particularly of African Americans.  Racial profiling is the use of race, ethnicity or national origin as sole grounds for suspecting someone of having committed an offense.  Too many examples of profiling are on record to be dismissive of this; it is an issue in need of thoughtful conversation and response.

Darren Martin, a 29-year-old African American who worked in the Obama White House as a communications staffer, was recently moving into a predominately white neighborhood after accepting a position with the city of New York.  Police arrived while he was carrying boxes into his new apartment. They were responding to a call from a neighbor who reported, erroneously, that someone was “trying to break into the door.”  Martin believes he was profiled because of his skin color.  “As a black man when you’re in an all-white environment, you’re cognizant of this.” 

James Conley, a 29-year-old African American from Des Moines, Iowa, was accused by an Old Navy employee of not paying for the jacket he was wearing, while checking out items he was purchasing.  A regular customer at that store, Conley felt shamed in front of other customers when asked if he wanted to also purchase the jacket he was wearing (a jacket he had bought from that same store some time ago).  Only after Conley asked the Manager to review the surveillance tape was he exonerated.  Neither the manager nor the cashier offered an apology.  After coverage of this incident, Old Navy did offer a company apology, stating “Profiling is not tolerated in our stores, and we will swiftly take action in accordance with our policies, beliefs and values.”

And, just in the past few weeks:  On May 8, an African-American graduate student at Yale University fell asleep in the common room of her own dorm, after which a white student called police about a suspicious person in that room.  When police arrived, the targeted student defended her presence there, stating “I deserve to be here.  I’m not going to justify my existence here.”  On April 30, three African-American women were leaving a California Airbnb rental, which provides short-term lodging for travelers.  They were carrying luggage out to their car when a neighbor called the police to report “three black people stealing stuff.”  Seven police cruisers and a helicopter responded to the call; the three women were detained for 45 minutes.  Recently, a golf resort in Pennsylvania called police on a group of five African-American women, all long-time members and accomplished golfers, after the co-owner complained they were playing too slowly, a claim disputed by others on the course that day.  Several of my former Baker College Human Services students, young African-American males mostly, shared personal stories during classroom discussion of

being stopped while walking to a friend’s house and questioned by officers or, while shopping, conspicuously being followed by a store employee. 

In researching this topic, it is apparent to me that the stories shared here are, indeed, not isolated cases.  Numerous other incidents, many just this year, may not have hit the news cycle but are nevertheless part of this narrative.  As a white male, I cannot begin to know this experience.  I have not been in a similar situation, like the Yale graduate student, to have to “justify my existence here.”    But we, collectively, have the responsibility, and obligation, to learn from such miscarriages of justice, and challenge any double standard applied in perceptions toward and interactions with others.  That, at the least, would be a start. 


Contact Rich at richmskgn@gmail.com