Philadelphia Starbucks Settlement: Respectability and the Inadequacy of a Symbolic Dollar and a Grant

By now, most people have heard of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson. They are the Philadelphia men who were arrested for having the audacity to sit in a Starbucks while waiting to have a meeting. They were not asked to leave the premises and were only in the space for two minutes — literally, two minutes— before the police were called. Recently, Nelson and Robinson settled with the city of Philadelphia, accepting a symbolic $1 and the establishment of a $200,000 grant for a public school program for young entrepreneurs. The grant will be used to create “a pilot curriculum for public high school students to develop the skills necessary to pursue their dream of being entrepreneurs.”

A lot of folks are praising these men for their seemingly noble act, and I understand that impulse. I really do. But it’s wrong. If you want to do symbolism, that’s fine. This isn’t the way to do it.

Nelson and Robinson settled with Starbucks for an undisclosed amount (as well as a free college education through Starbucks’ partnership with Arizona State University). It’s not unlikely that they don’t need money from the city of Philadelphia after the Starbucks settlement, but they sure as hell deserve it. And not just for their arrest. Black people literally built this nation and received no thanks, no compensation, and no reparations. In a capitalist society such as ours, money is power, and too many of us are lacking in both. Philadelphia has long been known as a racist city. These two men are not the first nor will they be the last to find themselves on the receiving end of said racism. Nelson and Robinson could’ve settled for enough money to secure their futures and the futures of their families. If they didn’t want to keep the money for themselves, they could’ve paid rent and bought groceries for a few hundred poor Black families in their city. There are a million things they could’ve done with immediate, tangible results, but rather than hitting the city where it hurts — in its racist pockets — they chose a dollar and a grant.

Let’s be real, $200,000 isn’t even that much money. In all likelihood, it will go to administrative costs and salaries and not the to the kids the program is supposed to benefit. Speaking of the kids the program is supposed to benefit…young entrepreneurs?! A white woman called the police on Nelson and Robinson because they were Black. Not young. Not entrepreneurs. Black. One would hope that out of a situation bred from racism that, at the very least, this program would specifically benefit those who experience racism universally on a daily basis. You know, those who are least likely to own a business. Currently, there’s no reason to believe that this program, should it actually come to fruition, would benefit any marginalized group at all.

We also can’t ignore the respectability politics inherent to this entire situation.

Time quoted Nelson as saying “When you know that you did nothing wrong, how do you really react to it? You can either be ignorant or you can show some type of sophistication and act like you have class. That was the choice we had.” This is the same language used to justify Sandra Bland’s treatment, and Mike Brown’s treatment, and Eric Garner’s treatment. The implication being that when you are treated unjustly you have to hide your anger, your outrage, your fear, your pain. You can’t be like Chikesia Clemons if you expect to be treated humanely, receive viral support, and get a formal apology. Opposing your mistreatment too adamantlyjust isn’t sophisticated. You have to know how to behave.

Nelson and Robinson know how to behave, and for that reason they are being depicted as exceptional negroes. Emphasis is continually being put of the fact that they were at Starbucks for a business meeting, as if that somehow matters. They could’ve been there doing nothing more than using the wifi, and their arrest would’ve still been unjust. Doing nothing wrong isn’t enough, however. If you don’t want to be blamed for your own mistreatment, you have to do enough things right as well. So these two men who look like thugs are “business partners” who were waiting to start a business meeting. It makes them more palatable to the masses, and it’s easier for folks jumping on the “woke” bandwagon to get behind them.

Additionally, the youth program is supposed to teach “proper etiquette”. So not only is it not intended for Black people, not only is it not intended to do anything to fight systemic racism, but it teaches youth how to meet racist Eurocentric standards of “professionalism”.

But what can we expect from a man who insists that his arrest is a “people thing” and “not just a Black people thing”? Because of course they were arrested for simply being people. The “Black” part had nothing to do with it. What can we expect from a man who wants “young men to not be traumatized by this, and instead be motivated [and] inspired”? Young men. Not young Black men. Not young Black people. Young men. Because all young men are equally likely to experience such a thing? And I guess young women just don’t count?

That symbolic dollar and that grant do nothing and mean nothing for Black people. If Nelson and Robinson wanted to be symbolic, the number they should’ve chosen is 12.5 million.

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