It’s hard to fully convey what it’s like to be black in America today to those who don’t share the experience. In my work as a civil rights attorney and advocate, I often call out those in positions of authority for the disparate treatment of people of color. Last week, just three short days after the notorious Starbucks incident, I experienced it myself — in the most ordinary of situations. After having arrived in Houston on business, I was asked to leave the hotel where I was a registered guest.
Dressed in a business suit, I was sitting in the lobby with my law partner, who happens to be white. Without provocation or warning, I was approached by a security guard who asked me to leave. He said I was loitering.
The security guard did not make the same request of my white colleague, who was sitting right next to me. So my colleague asked for management to explain the disparity in how we were being treated. Eventually, a manager apologized, advising him that they had been “having that issue a lot lately.”
“That issue” — meaning a person of color being in a public space.
The shameful reality is that what those two men experienced in that Philadelphia Starbucks and what I experienced in that Houston hotel are at the heart of the black experience in America today. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a suit, as I was, or everyday casual wear, as the young men in Starbucks were. You can change your clothes, but you can’t change the pigmentation of your skin.
Parents of color have to engage in some extraordinarily difficult conversations with their children — conversations many white parents cannot imagine needing to have. Black parents must teach our kids, “If you have a run-in with the police, make sure your hands are visible. Be respectful, say ‘yes, sir’ or ‘yes, ma’am’ and don’t make any sudden movements — even if you weren’t doing anything wrong.”
The Starbucks incident, in which both men had done nothing wrong and obediently stood up to be handcuffed by police, shows they learned the lesson. They knew that one slight move could be their last.
This is the hard reality of being black in America. Implicit bias creeps through our society like an invasive weed, determining how people of color are treated and marginalizing their rights as citizens. In hundreds of everyday situations from Philadelphia to Houston to Sacramento, black people are reflexively judged to be a nuisance at best or, at worst, a threat — before they ever get a chance to make an individual impression with their character or personality.
A survival code for black Americans is emerging from these incidents: Dress up at all times, so you aren’t judged to have criminal intent; wear a hoodie or baggy pants at your own peril. Don’t speak up for your rights as a customer or you may be thrown off a plane or out of an establishment you are patronizing. And by all means, don’t carry a gun — even with a permit. The Second Amendment that the NRA fights so hard to protect does not seem to extend to black people, whom police deem to be dangerous even when they’re only carrying a cell phone.
Both in that Philadelphia Starbucks and in the hotel lobby in Houston, white people who witnessed the situation spoke up to challenge the injustice. In my case, it yielded an apology from management. For the two young men at the Philadelphia Starbucks, the incident culminated with their arrest, public humiliation and, eventually, an apology from Starbucks. For far too many others, the simple fact of being black in America — whether in a car, on a public street or in their own backyard — has ended in tragic death.
America is in the throes of a practical and moral crisis. To move forward as a country we need to provoke a crisis of conscience from our boardrooms to our courtrooms. Apologies are insufficient. It’s time to do the right thing… right from the start.
Ben Crump is a nationally known civil rights attorney and advocate. He is also the founder and principal of Ben Crump Law.