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Commentary: Can We Really Trust Starbucks to Take on Racism?

April 19, 2018, 8:07 PM UTC

I was surprised when I learned that Kevin Johnson, CEO of America’s most popular coffee brand Starbucks, decided to close more than half of the company’s U.S. stores on May 29 to conduct racial bias training for staff, following the uproar over two black men—Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson—being arrested at a Philadelphia location.

Johnson is proposing a unique approach to combat the depressingly repetitive, dehumanizing experiences that black people and other people of color too frequently experience in retail spaces. How impactful this approach will be depends on the business world’s focus on and long-term commitment to the goal of reducing racial discrimination and increasing antiracist actions.

In the past, when people of color were treated with indignity and disdain for simply existing, most responses from company leaders involved an approach of firing an employee, a feeble apology, and business as usual once the event faded from the headlines. Starbucks, however, is taking a different approach. This pronouncement, along with Johnson’s (and executive chairman Howard Schultz’s) apology, meetings with community leaders, and enlisting the guidance of civil rights leaders such as former Attorney General Eric Holder and the NAACP’s Sherrilyn Ifill, ensures that this incident and the specter of racial bias will remain in the public’s mind beyond a few days.

Starbucks is making an important statement about racial discrimination with this announcement. Melissa DePino, the white female patron whose video of the incident went viral, stated that when she was at the same location the day before, she sat a table without ordering anything and no one asked her to leave. “This happens every day to black and brown people in this country, and we just don’t hear about it,” she said in a TV interview.

Indeed, black men navigate a world where they are often assumed to be a threat, regardless of their behavior. The presence of armed police can result in escalation—and even death. Every black parent has had to have “the talk” with their children, a conversation about the dangers that await them because some people might assume them to be a threat. Black men and boys, in particular, are all too familiar with the question scholar W. E. B. Du Bois asked over a century ago: “How does it feel to be a problem?”

Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, the two men arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, tell their story on "Good Morning America" on ABC.
Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, the two men arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, tell their story on “Good Morning America” on ABC. In response, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson announced a companywide racial bias training.Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ABC via Getty Images
Lorenzo Bevilaqua—ABC via Getty Images

In many ways, the response from Starbucks falls in line with its previous progressive corporate policy announcements. Just last month, the company announced that after a 10-year effort, it had achieved 100% pay equity for employees by race and gender in the U.S., and committed to doing the same goal globally.

Starbucks does deserve credit for its past history of tackling equity issues. But for people of color, there may be cause for cynicism among the optimism over the company’s response to the recent crisis.

“Diversity trainings” have become the stuff of parody, and there’s a body of evidence that suggests mandated one-off sessions do not have any effect. However, sustained engagement on issues of equity and inclusion, activities that place participants in the situations that oppressed people experience (what I call “addressing the empathy gap”), and setting goals—much like the one Starbucks envisioned a decade ago regarding pay equity—are some examples of evidence-based best practices.

But perhaps the most positive aspect of the Starbucks pronouncement is that it sets a precedent for other businesses and organizations. There is a numbing sense of deja vu about incidents such as these; we know more are coming. Even Johnson recently stated that the problem was not limited to Starbucks. Other professional fields—retailers, law offices, educational administrative offices, the government—should commit to halting business as usual the next time a racially discriminatory act is committed by an employee.

Many of us will be watching to see whether the May 29 racial bias training is successful—and what Starbucks commits to beyond this single day. Perhaps the millions of customers craving a drink that week can commit to antiracist action as well.

Richard J. Reddick is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin, where he also holds courtesy appointments in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies, the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, and the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies. He is also assistant director of the Plan II Honors Program.