Credit: Thiago Martins/flickr

Conservative people get exercised about the strangest things. For example, Megyn Kelly is upset that Starbucks will now formally allow people to sit in their stores even if they are not paying customers, and that they will allow anyone who enters to use the bathroom without confirming that they intend to buy anything. As a white person, I have always considered this a feature of the very concept of a coffee house, whether it’s some privately run affair in New Haven across the street from Yale’s campus or it’s a corporate franchise at the local mall. I have frequently used coffee houses when traveling because of their free WiFi. Even today, when WiFi is available almost everywhere I go, I still think first of coffee houses because they were the early adopters of giving the service away for free. I also think of coffee houses first when I’m looking for a bathroom that I can use without hassle and that I can expect to be at least moderately sanitary.

Coffee houses uniformly offer comfortable places to sit, with most of the quiet of a library but fewer of the stultifying expectations. Plus, yes, they have coffee and tasty things to nosh as your peruse the internet and check your social media and email. If coffee houses were to change and require a proof of purchase before you could be seated, that would vastly diminish their basic appeal, and even the way we think about them.

More than this, though, these relaxed norms aren’t as free as they seem. It’s expensive to get your coffee at a coffee house. Paying customers are willing to pay more than they would at a diner not only because the coffee is generally better but because they can drink their coffee without some ticking clock in their head that tells them they need to move on so the wait staff can makes some more tips. Even when you buy a cookie or a beverage, the coffee house has appeal because they welcome you to stay as long as you want.

So, when Starbucks makes these basic features of a coffee house formal, they’re not changing anything. At least, they’re not changing anything for white people.

Megyn Kelly doesn’t see it that way, however, because one of the things she feels will change is the prevalence of undesirables.

“They’re allowing anyone to stay and use the bathroom even if they don’t buy anything, which has a lot of Starbucks’ customers saying, ‘Really?’” Kelly remarked on her Today Show program. “Because now the Starbucks are going to get overwhelmed with people and is it really just a public space or is it not?”

“For the paying customers who go in with their kids, do you really want to deal with a mass of homeless people or whoever is in there — could be drug addicted, you don’t know when you’re there with your kids paying for the services of the place.”

For those of us who frequent urban coffee houses, the sight of apparently homeless people is not particularly unusual especially in winter months or bad weather. Unless their smell is particularly offensive or they’re displaying signs of mental illness and making people nervous, their presence barely merits notice. And, by the way, those would both be fully justified reasons to ask someone to leave a place of business, whether a paying customer or not.

The new Starbucks policy, which I haven’t parsed, could conceivably make staff overly reluctant to kick people out who really should be kicked out. But, if it the training is done correctly, this shouldn’t be a problem. Anytime you try to formalize previously informal policies, you will run into a few problems. But it’s not like Starbucks just made itself a target for every homeless person in the country to treat their stores as a residence.

What Kelly means, whether she’s fully conscious of it or not, is that she wants coffee houses to be welcoming to people like her and to exercise some kind of rigorous admittance standards for anyone who doesn’t look right. But coffee houses can’t operate like Studio 54 with people at the door deciding who is beautiful and well-dressed enough to merit entry.

Of course, you could create a coffee house like that, but it would probably fail as a business because drinking coffee and surfing the internet and finding a place to use the bathroom are nothing like going to a fancy night club. Plus, if Studio 54 had only admitted white people, half the beautiful folks would have been stuck out on the sidewalk.

Yet, to the conservative mind, this policy is just one more example of political correctness run amok, with the familiar result that undeserving people get something for free at the expense and discomfort of decent white folks.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at