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Starbucks Racism & The Media: There’s Nothing New Except The Attention

Posted in Creative Commons, and Journalism

As a journalist, I want to talk to other white people about recent coverage of “Starbucks Racism” incidents.

People of all races are horrified by the reports filling the news of black people targeted by whites for everyday activities. I’m calling it “Starbucks Racism” in this post not because I particularly hate Starbucks. It’s simply that the incident in which police arrested two black men waiting for a third friend at a Philadelphia Starbucks is now infamous. This story ushered in renewed interest in the media in this kind of “casual” but extremely dangerous racism.

There’s a reaction to these Starbucks Racism stories I’ve mostly noticed among white people. It reflects both a misunderstanding of systemic racism and a misunderstanding of how the media works. I’ll paraphrase something I saw on a friend’s wall: “What’s wrong with people? I’m so disgusted at how people act recently.”

Our disgust is justified: Black lives matter, and POC should be able to go about their lives as we do. They shouldn’t worry that murderous police will be called on them simply for pushing a stroller through a park while black. What’s less justifiable is our surprise.

Starbucks Racism isn’t new, but social media made it newsworthy

Starbucks Racism is nothing new. Incidents like these are part of the daily experience for black folks. Staff follow blacks and other POC in stores. Clerks, police, government officials, and anyone with temporary authority over others assume black folks are thieves or troublemakers. The idea “that a nonwhite person cannot or will not be a legitimate customer” is completely pervasive throughout our white supremacist culture.

But now editors are suddenly green-lighting stories about this issue. This is a new and important trend. In the past, newspapers were more likely to cover similar stories only when a black person was killed while doing something white people wouldn’t think twice about. Like dressing up in costumes or shopping at Walmart. That changed, at least for the moment, after the Starbucks incident.

Atttention drives the mainstream media and always has. This is more true than ever today when newsrooms are shrinking and clicks are king. These stories generate a lot of traffic, which means editors ask journalists to find more of them. Now that Starbucks Racism is suddenly “newsworthy,” editors realize these are perfect stories for their tiny budgets. All a reporter does to create one of these stories is combine bystander’s social media with company statements. Original journalism, like interviews, is optional.

Social shares drive media attention

There’s also a lesson about social media here. These viral videos matter and everyone plays a role. Thousands of social media users turned everyday racism into news. “Keyboard warriors” sometimes get criticized for not matching their words with action. The reaction to Starbucks Racism proves that these social shares are a valuable form of action.

As white accomplices in the struggle against white supremacy, we can help by amplifying these stories of everyday casual racism when they do make it to the media. We should join the struggle offline too, whether that means putting pressure on racist businesses and institutions or joining street parties outside bigots homes. Of course, we need to let black people and people of color lead in this, and be available to help however we can.

Starbucks Racism & The Media: There’s Nothing New Except The Attention by Kit O’Connell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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This post was made possible by Kit’s patrons, including a generous anonymous sponsor who asks that you support Austin Pets Alive! with your time and money.