By David Z. Morris
April 15, 2018

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson issued a statement late Saturday apologizing for the apparent racially motivated arrest of two black customers at the behest of a Starbucks manager in Philadelphia. The two men, according to reports, were waiting for a friend inside a Starbucks store, but were asked to leave because they had not yet made a purchase.

Staff then reportedly called police, who arrived and arrested the men for trespassing. The arrest was captured on video by another customer who attested the men had done nothing wrong. Subsequent reports indicate the two men were real estate developers waiting to meet an investor.

Johnson’s statement describes the events as “reprehensible,” and, crucially, states that “Starbucks stands firmly against discrimination or racial profiling.” A preliminary statement from the company Saturday appeared to skirt the core issue, referring vaguely to “these types of situations.”

Johnson’s statement also included a public apology to the two men who were arrested, and declared “a goal of doing whatever we can to make things right.” He said the company will investigate and revise its own practices and training, which Johnson admits “led to a bad outcome – the basis for the call to the Philadelphia police department was wrong.”

Johnson also said he hoped to meet the men in person and issue a face-to-face apology.

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According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the incident took place at a Starbucks location at 18th and Spruce streets. The Philadelphia mayor’s office and Police Department have begun separate investigations.

Addressing the issue forthrightly is important in part because Starbucks already has a complicated track record on racial issues. Though the company has often taken very public progressive stances on social issues, then-CEO Howard Schultz triggered a backlash with a 2015 campaign dubbed “Race Together,” which aimed to foster conversations about race as national outrage over police shootings of unarmed African-Americans reached a fever pitch.

But that campaign was met with withering scorn by critics who felt it was a superficial gesture, emblematic of tone-deaf posturing by white liberals.

More subtly, Starbucks appears to play a role in gentrifying urban neighborhoods, and possibly displacing communities of color. A 2015 study published by Quartz showed that the arrival of a Starbucks is a very strong predictor, and possibly a cause, of disproportionate rises in the price of surrounding homes. Another study focused specifically on Philadelphia found that gentrification effectively led to the re-segregation of the city.

That Starbucks locations might be inhospitable to people of color could lead to serious long-term economic impacts. For many entrepreneurs and self-employed workers, Starbucks is an important place to work and conduct business meetings — such as the one apparently interrupted by the Philadelphia police.

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