Many Americans have become enamored with local coffee shops. The domain of “spiked hair,” “postmodern baristas” (LA Weekly), these businesses are so often associated with liberal views that a small number of new coffeehouses now base their marketing around their uniquely conservative politics (The Blaze). The movement of modern, boutique “third-wave” coffeehouses — following the first wave of postwar instant coffee and the second wave exemplified by Starbucks — is even named after third-wave feminism (Tamper Tantrum). Coffeehouses can be presented as intersectional oases where open displays of bigotry are as rare as “Hate Has No Home Here” signs are ubiquitous.
However, these trends may distract from real issues of racial equity in the way coffee is produced, sold, and served. First, there are clear racial and socioeconomic disparities in the industry. Wealthier people consume more coffee than the less affluent (Brandon Gaille), and coffeehouses looking to soak up some of Starbucks’ customers target “urban,” “affluent,” and “educated” consumers with an average income of $90,000 (The Motley Fool). Given that Black people are less likely to consume coffee or work in the domestic coffee industry (Roast Magazine), this means that coffee shop patrons are disproportionately white. This facilitates shocking acts of racial exclusion against non-white patrons.
Two Black men were arrested waiting for a business meeting in a Philadelphia Starbucks. W. Kamau Bell was asked to leave a Berkeley coffee shop after approaching his wife, who is white (ABC 7). Santana Tapia, a transgender Latina resident of San Francisco, felt deeply unwelcome inside the expensive, largely-white coffee establishments appearing in the city where she grew up drinking nightly coffees with her family (MSN).
• Follow and support Cxffeeblack and Black-owned coffee businesses.
• Encourage predominantly-white coffeehouses to commit to anti-racism and support local anti-gentrification initiatives.
•Support democratically-run, collectively-owned coffee farming.
The affluent, largely white patrons inside gourmet coffee shops can lead to the whitening of the neighborhoods that surround them, as well. Researchers found correlations between the appearance of high-end coffeehouses and neighborhood gentrification in cities around the world (Bitter Root). One Denver shop had the audacity to declare “happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014” on a sidewalk sign (Washington Post). Even liberally-oriented establishments can post “Black Lives Matter” signs while doing nothing to address their role in pushing actual Black people out of the neighborhoods they move into (Truthout).
And equity issues start before coffee beans arrive at the cafe. The global coffee industry grew off the labor of enslaved people in places like Java, Haiti, Central America, and Brazil. Today, “shockingly little has changed” as the overwhelming majority of coffee producers are Black, Indigenous, and people of color living in extreme poverty. Indentured Indigenous farmworkers toil without showers, latrines, or adequate drinking water on white-owned plantations (Heifer International). Illiberal practices permeate the supposedly liberal coffee industry: racial profiling in coffee shops, economic displacement in surrounding neighborhoods, and virtual slavery in the fields where coffee is grown.
Fortunately, people are taking action to bring true equity to the coffee world. Black-owned coffee shop owners and employees like Cafe Grumpy’s Tinuade Oyelowo in New York and Urban Grind’s Cassandra Ingram in Atlanta advocate for inclusion in coffee culture (Roast Magazine). San Francisco’s Santana Tapia helped found a worker-owned pro-queer coffee shop (MSN). Hasta Muerte is a Latinx worker cooperative that sells coffee and serves as a “sanctuary space for people of color, low-income people, and immigrants” (East Bay Express).
Camila Coddou, a former barista who advocates for equity in the industry, asks coffee owners, “Are you dropping into a community of people that don’t look like you who are losing their rights?” (Bitter Root). Community members responded to the Colorado pro-gentrification coffee shop with a boycott and protest (Washington Post). The visibility of these protests pushed the local government to double the city’s affordable housing fund (Fox 31). And the Anti Gentrification Coffee Club in Memphis is a coffeehouse run to “deepen the ties in [communities of color], rather than displace them” (Cxffeeblack).
In southern Mexico, coffee plantations formerly owned by wealthy landowners are now democratically run as cooperatives by Mayan farmworkers. Though anti-Indigenous paramilitaries recently attacked the crop stored in two warehouses (ROAR), Mayan communities continue to self-organize coffee production and send it around the world, demonstrating that coffee farming doesn’t require exploitation and deprivation if those growing it are empowered.
Inequalities in the coffee industry don’t mean we have to give up drinking it. But we shouldn’t let the progressive image of coffee culture obscure real work to do in making it equitable for us all.
- Independent coffee shops are known for being progressive and inclusive.
- In actuality, coffeehouses can be exclusive spaces that facilitate gentrification, while much coffee is farmed by unfree workers living in poverty.
- People are taking action along the supply chain from the coffee fields to the neighborhood coffee shop to make sure coffee can be good for all of us.