Starbucks and Racial Bias

April 23, 2018 Ophelie Zalcmanis-Lai

Starbucks has been facing some heavy fire recently, and not for its coffee.

On April 12, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson were at a Starbucks in Philadelphia for a meeting when they were arrested by police. According to reporting by The New York Times, the police were called approximately two minutes after the two young men had entered the store and that as they were being escorted out they were not read their rights.

A video of the arrest was posted to Twitter and has been viewed over 11 million times.

Five days later, Starbucks announced that it would be closing all US, company-owned stores for mandatory racial-bias education on May 29, 2018. It has also since been reported that the employee who asked the men to leave the store is no longer with the company.

 "The company's founding values are based on humanity and inclusion," said executive chairman Howard Schultz, who joined Johnson and other senior Starbucks leaders in Philadelphia to meet with community leaders and Starbucks partners. "We will learn from our mistakes and reaffirm our commitment to creating a safe and welcoming environment for every customer."

Reactions have been mixed between total support for the company’s drastic decision, to skeptical of the intentions behind it.

This is what captured our minutes.

Here’s why:

Crises like this are incredibly complicated.

Not just for the brand. But for the people involved. For Donte and Rashon. For people who believed in Starbucks’ progressive attitudes.

See, at the surface of this, the company’s decision is huge. Bold. Far-sweeping. To close all stores and address an issue from the top to the bottom of a company’s ranks is a big deal. A lot of the time, the issue is dealt with at the source. Where it happened. Who it happened with. The action feels almost isolated.

However, Starbucks said “screw that” essentially and made a point of making sure the entire company was aligned with its goals and beliefs.

After all, when employees of a brand at multiple levels are not aligned with the brand’s core beliefs it leads to a schism between said beliefs and actual actions. A schism like that could weaken the brand, especially in the eyes of once loyal consumers who find themselves at odds with something they too thought they believed in.

Starbucks also made sure that the curriculum developed for this training wasn’t done solely internally. In fact, it includes guidance from Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative; Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund;  Heather McGhee, president of Demos; former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; and Jonathan Greenblatt, ceo of the Anti-Defamation League.

The company has even said that these same experts will also be monitoring the “effectiveness of the measures [Starbucks] undertakes.”

This all shows some real commitment to listening, acting and effecting change. All things that Starbucks has closely aligned itself with over the years.

We applaud the company.

However, it’s still all so tricky.  

Timing the response so that it’s not seen as a publicity stunt but rather a genuine response can be tough, especially when everyone is going to have their own opinions no matter what. Additionally, one day of training will most likely not eradicate bias in the company entirely.

So, did Starbucks do the right thing?

Yes. But, as Heather McGhee, president of Demos, explained in an article by The Guardian this is just the beginning.

When it comes to really making sure that a brand responds effectively to an issue as big as racism, it’s all about the follow-up.

It can start with something like training, awareness and education. But then, all those words have to be followed up with actions that stay – like in the form of procedural changes. Think of follow-up actions like the foundation of a house. You can put up walls, build floors and furnish your space. But if it doesn’t have the security of something to stand on, it’s eventually going to topple over. Not to mention, that foundation exists at all levels. There’s not just the literal concrete foundation. There are support beams in ceilings and load-bearing walls.

Responding immediately and effectively is important. But the strength behind that can fade over time if there isn’t a continual force driving change forward. Change can take all sorts of shapes. It depends on the issue at hand and the brand that’s trying to effect it.

But the key is making sure it all lasts. It really sucks that in 2018, people would have to be taught about racism. Yet, being the reality and being something that’s so apparently public, a brand that’s going to align itself with something like combatting racism had put its best foot forward.

We’re not saying Starbucks isn’t. The training hasn’t even happened yet, so it’s far too early to judge how the well the change is taking place within the company.

That said, the support for this change must remain present at all levels. After all, what good is changing a company’s education and insight if it’s only one group being educated?

Share your thoughts with us: has Starbucks made the right move with its racial bias training? Let us know @TheTiteReport.

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