Two black men were arrested in Philadelphia on Thursday for sitting in a Starbucks and attempting to use the restroom while waiting on a friend. Yes, you read that right. They weren’t trying to rob the Starbucks. They weren’t harassing customers. They weren’t disturbing the peace. They were simply waiting for a friend. It appears that the only crime that these men committed in that Starbucks was failure to order a Hazelnut Mocha Coconutmilk Macchiato.
Their arrest was caught on camera and has since gone viral.
It’s at this point in the narrative that many of my fellow caucasians revert to the standard reactions.
“I’m sure that there’s more to this story.”
“Those guys had to have been up to something.”
“It’s the company policy and rules are rules. If they wanted to be in there or use the restroom, they should have bought something.”
But here’s the problem. If it would have been me, a white, forty-something male with ravishing good looks and an award winning smile walking into that restaurant to use the restroom and wait for a friend, this wouldn’t be a story. How do I know? Because I do it all the time.
I meet people at coffee shops and don’t order anything because, please forgive me, I’m not a big coffee fan.
I’ve walked into gas stations, swanky boutiques, and hotel lobbies that would not be receiving one penny from me just to use their super clean restrooms.
And no one has ever said a word to me.
That’s because, and many from my circles won’t like this, we really are living in two different Americas.
The men in the viral video who were arrested and later released because, well, they didn’t do anything wrong, were not thugs. They were in the real estate business. And the only thing they were up to was meeting a friend.
But what about you? And me? How should we respond?
You could ignore what happened and carry on repeating the old mantras of your tribe that help you to sleep better at night and look yourself in the mirror in the morning while living in a world where men are arrested for the terrible crime of sitting while black.
There is a better way.
Empathy is the ability to relate to another person’s situation. It’s an ability that is in short supply these days. We prefer tribalism. Tribalism is the condition of living in a vacuum where you only hear what confirms what you want to be true while ignoring the thoughts and trials of those outside of your tribe.
Tribalism is tearing our country apart.
It’s easy for people like me to pretend that racism doesn’t exist or that it somehow disappeared when we elected a black president. That’s primarily due to the fact that we’ve never experienced what those two men experienced in Starbucks that day. Our kids can wear hoodies home from school without being labeled as thugs. We can sit at an empty table without having the police called on us. But not everyone enjoys those privileges. And if we really care about peace and unity, we’ll stop ignoring the plight of those who suffer in ways that we only thought existed in movies set in the 1960s south.
To put it another way, we’ll be empathetic.
No amount of activism, Twitter rants and government laws will ever truly end racism in this country. Those things have their place but they can only do so much. Slogans about being colorblind and misguided attempts to label every problem a race problem only make matters worse.
If we really want to see race relations improve, we have to address them where they begin—the human heart.
And before we look at the hearts of our neighbors, we must look at our own. We must be honest about the times when we embrace our tribe at the expense of our neighbor whose only crime was waiting for a friend. We must instead embrace an ethic of empathy that at least tries to listen to those with experiences that are alien to us.
Or we could just classify every black person who gets arrested unjustly as a thug who had it coming and keep pretending that there’s not a problem.
But that wouldn’t be empathetic.
It would just be pathetic.