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Our view: The problem is racism, not loitering

When a Philadelphia Starbucks manager saw two black men lingering in a booth earlier this spring, she called 911. It possibly was racially motivated and definitely was an overreaction.

Saturday, Starbucks responded with another overreaction, at the far opposite end of the spectrum.

The coffee store chain announced it will allow people to use its bathrooms, sit at its tables and generally hang out all day — even if those people don't make a purchase. Essentially, it means people can come to Starbucks and sit there for hours, as long as they behave.

Monday, the restaurant clarified its announcement, saying its list of inappropriate behaviors includes smoking, using drugs or alcohol, sleeping or improperly using the restroom. Also inappropriate is watching loud or improper videos on personal devices or people whose personal hygiene is disruptive.

It's a noble response but it's going too far. Employees now will be tasked with all sorts of tricky judgment calls: Is that video too loud? Is that person's hygiene disruptive to others? Is someone improperly using the bathroom?

Actually, it's all understandable. Starbucks is smarting after the ugly April incident, when the manager of a Philadelphia store called police after the two men came to a shop for a business meeting. They were told they could not use a bathroom because they had not made a purchase. They were not unruly or inappropriate.

When they didn't leave, the manager called 911. It became national news and public reaction was fierce.

The 911 call seems excessive. But many businesses have similar policies regarding use of their facilities and we don't think they necessarily are wrong, so long as enforcement is meted equally. The Herald, for instance, doesn't allow the public to use its restrooms.

Again, Starbucks' reaction is noble, but it's an overreaction that is bound to come with repercussions, nearly all of which will revolve around enforcement and potentially lost revenue as regular customers are crowded out. It also creates an expectation that other businesses should follow with similarly loose loitering policies, and we don't believe they should.

Racism still exists in the United States, and that is the problem. However, it is not inappropriate for businesses to discourage loitering. There is nothing wrong with allowing only paying customers to use the bathroom or linger at a restaurant table. Such policies are not racist, nor are they cold-hearted.

The trouble comes when businesses unequally enforce those rules.

Another response announced by Starbucks is more appropriate. On May 29, the company will close more than 8,000 of its stores to train employees — approximately 175,000 of them — on racial-bias education. A story in the Washington Post notes that the curriculum will focus on how employees can recognize their own biases in hopes of curbing future discrimination.

That's a proper reaction and one that should be considered everywhere.

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