Starbucks’s decision to shut down its stores on May 29 for a day of “racial-bias education” training may not be enough to contain the backlash building against it. The boycotts have begun, and the angry social media threads continue apace.
A common sentiment is that this initiative is pointless, just another example of “woke capitalism” meant to burnish Starbucks’s image and do little else. But I say, “Thanks, Starbucks” — and not just for forcing me to pull out my own French press on May 29 and save $5 that would otherwise go to a mediocre espresso. Far from emptily signifying, Starbucks is setting an unusually good example of what should be done when racism becomes a public problem in a public space.
In the wake of the arrest of two African American men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia on April 12 for the crime of arriving early for a business meeting, the company has chosen to face its misstep head-on. Rather than pretending it was an isolated event and sweeping it under the rug, it is drawing awareness to the thorny issues underlying the incident. The former is the easier and more commonplace route. The latter should be a model for more organizations to follow.
After all, every day brings forth a new example of the role race plays in public interactions. Blackness decides whether you’re a potential customer or a trespasser, a teen neighbor or a home invader, a drunk college student deserving of indulgence or an imminent threat to passersby. Yet even when racism has played an obvious role in an unfavorable outcome, the usual response is rationalization (“The police were just doing their jobs!”), distancing (“It’s a local matter”) or a vague expression of disappointment (“This is upsetting”). Meanwhile, the appalling behavior of the biased employee, fisticuffs-happy police officer or gun-toting neighbor is allowed to fade from the public’s mind.
Starbucks has chosen a different course. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the reason that [police] were called was because they were African American,” Howard Schultz, Starbucks’s executive chairman, said to CBS host Gayle King. It was an unusually frank admission in a country that often seems that it would rather do anything than acknowledge the fact that racism still exists. “Our practices and training led to the bad outcome,” wrote Kevin Johnson, the company’s chief executive. That’s more than most police departments would admit.
This doesn’t mean Starbucks is worthy of universal praise. There are valid questions to be asked about how far its advocacy will go. Research shows that the effects of bias training are uneven at best — in fact, alerting people to the presence of implicit racial biases may even activate latent stereotypes or make it easier for them to rationalize racist behaviors by framing them as unconscious and thus unchangeable. Will Starbucks’s training have follow-through or is it a one-time event? How will the company measure on-the-job behavioral shifts and set expectations for the future? In the past, the company has pursued half-baked efforts toward racial reconciliation. Remember that infamous “Race Together” initiative, in which baristas were instructed to start conversations about race with customers after writing a hashtag on their cups?
No, Starbucks won’t conquer racial bias in one afternoon. Still, having even the most incomplete conversation about racism in American daily life is preferable to brushing the issue aside yet again. While closing their shops for the day may not sound like a lot, it’s better than we’ve come to expect — and when a similar incident occurs at some other company, as it inevitably will, Starbucks will have set a new baseline for how to address it. Organizations should be willing to do at least this much to fight racism. Hopefully more.