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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

When efforts to fight racism go overboard

Six weeks after the caught-on-camera incident in which two young black men waiting to meet a business contact at a Philadelphia Starbucks were arrested for not making a purchase and refusing to leave, America’s soul-searching about racism in public places continues.

On Tuesday, Starbucks closed its stores for two to three hours for a session of racial-bias training for employees. This conversation addresses a problem that few doubt really exists. But a far less widely noticed incident in Portland, Oregon, should serve as a warning about the pitfalls of anti-racism efforts taken to an extreme.

On May 11, Back to Eden, a chain of vegan bakeries that prides itself on commitment to social justice (not unusual in progressive Portland), found itself under fire over an allegation of racism. The previous night, Lillian Green, who is African-American and an anti-racism activist, posted two videos on Facebook claiming that one of the bakery’s outlets denied her service just after closing time despite still serving white customers.

In a long Facebook post later that day, Back to Eden co-owner John Blomgren explained what happened. As security camera images showed, at 9 p.m., the closing time, the shop was still unusually busy, with several customers seated inside and four people in line at the counter. At 9:03, an employee turned off the “Open” sign. A minute later, two white women came in and got in line. Right after that, a staffer announced the closing. Green walked in at 9:06. She was told that the bakery was closed and no one would be served after the last two women in line. She went outside and began filming.

In his first Facebook post, Blomgren announced that the two female staffers who had denied service to Green had been fired. He also invited Green and other community members to meet and discuss the situation and promised that Back to Eden would take other measures to show its commitment to “inclusivity,” including a “reparations happy hour” at which any black person who walked in would receive $10 and a free drink.

After the post, Blomgren received a backlash from both sides. Some felt the employees had been fired unfairly. A Latino commenter who was in the bakery at the time wrote that there had been no racism, and that the two staffers had discussed the fact that they needed to stop taking customers and close. Others felt that Blomgren had wronged Green in various ways — by mentioning her in the post without contacting her first (even though she had gone public), or by asking her to meet without offering to pay for her time.

Blomgren then made a lengthy second post filled with profuse apologies for handling the situation badly and focusing too much on his business’ social justice commitments rather than on Green’s pain. He also wrote that while the two employees who had refused to serve Green were not racist, it didn’t matter because Green felt “she had been discriminated against” and “sometimes impact outweighs intent.”

The blowback grew bigger after a story about “reparations happy hour” on a local news site mentioned that a black woman had been “kicked out” of the bakery. Blomgren eventually deleted the Facebook post, but it survives in archives and screenshots and looks like an intentional parody of progressivism and white guilt.

What we see in Portland is anti-racism turning into its opposite: not equal dignity and respect for all humans, but white self-abasement and special treatment for minorities. Such efforts can only produce more division and anger.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.