Editor’s Note: Dr. Eugene Gu is a resident physician at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and president of the Ganogen Research Institute. He graduated from Stanford University with honors and holds an M.D. from the Duke University School of Medicine. The views expressed in this piece are solely his own.
Last week, a video went viral on Twitter showing a large group of police officers arresting two African-American men at a Starbucks store in Philadelphia.
By all accounts, the men were waiting peacefully when the manager accused them of loitering and trespassing—sparking national outrage that the rules are enforced differently for White and Black patrons.
Soon another video surfaced in Los Angeles, this time showing that a White customer used the bathroom without making a purchase whereas a Black customer was refused the same privilege.
The fallout has been both swift and devastating. Starbucks has not only publicly apologized but CEO Kevin Johnson announced that he will temporarily close 8,000 stores for an afternoon on May 29 and train 175,000 employees about racism and implicit bias. He says that this is the first of many steps to correct these injustices.
But while Starbucks seems to have gotten the message, one party that is just as culpable remains both unapologetic and unscathed: the police.
In fact, Philadephia Police Commissioner Richard Ross, who is Black, still maintains that his officers “did absolutely nothing wrong.” Even worse, he implies that the two Black men were criminals. He goes on record saying that while he believes the officers were professional in their conduct, the two Black men responded by “giving the opposite [behavior] back.”
I don’t know about Commissioner Ross, but if I was arrested for absolutely no reason whatsoever except for the color of my skin, I wouldn’t be smiling and chatting it up with the arresting officers.
In fact, I’d be downright pissed.
Ross is also misleading the public when he says the officers did nothing wrong and were only following orders. According to criminologist and Philadelphia attorney Phillip Stinson, the officers “could have removed [the men] from Starbucks and simply sent them on their way. That certainly would have been within the discretion of the police officers, and it would have been appropriate to do.” Instead, the men were dragged out in handcuffs, perp walked, and held in custody for over nine hours.
Perhaps most outrageous of all, Commissioner Ross shamelessly uses his identity as a Black male to provide cover for his racist actions. “I will say that, as an African-American male, I am very aware of implicit bias,” he stated in front of the media.
It seems like a common and unfortunately effective strategy to use minority spokespersons to perpetuate racism against their own people. This may be the reason the Philadelphia police department has escaped the same level of scrutiny that Starbucks has dealt with.
One thing is clear: the Philadelphia police officers committed a very discriminatory and unconscionable act when they arrested those men. Commissioner Ross is making the situation even worse by defending those actions. Unless the police department owns up to and learns from its mistakes, it doesn’t matter how much training Starbucks gives to its employees — that same type of racism that disgusted the nation will still be going on strong.