Starbucks racial-bias training result of common incident

Tori Hoffman

Back in 2015, Starbucks Executive Chairman Howard Schultz, then CEO of the company, promoted a campaign for Starbucks employees to write the words “Race Together” on cups in hopes of facilitating a conversation between Starbucks employees and their customers.


Nearly everyone, including Schultz himself, acknowledged the campaign as one of the biggest flaws of Starbucks’ diversity initiative.


Many people, including myself, reacted to that news saying, “Yes Starbucks, a conversation on race is clearly important, but there is both a time and a place for it to unfold.” These conversations cannot and should not be had between strangers during their first encounter in the time it takes to whip up a latte.


In response to the backlash, Schultz mentioned that people “might find it hard to understand” why he would make this a priority.


“I’m not black, I haven’t lived a life in which I was racially profiled, and I wasn’t discriminated against because of the color of my skin,” notes Schultz. “The irony is, we did create a national conversation — not how we intended, but you learn from mistakes.”


So, upon hearing the announcement by current CEO, Kevin Johnson, that Starbucks will close more than 8,000 company-owned stores in the U.S. on May 29 to hold “racial-bias education geared toward preventing discrimination in [their] stores,” I was disappointed to see another seemingly unaware and last-minute campaign by the coffee chain corporation.


Dialogue is important, and it must be ongoing if systemic change is to come from learning moments that happen all around us on a daily basis.


This new racial-education initiative, outlined by Johnson in a Starbucks press release last Tuesday, was procured in response to an incident on April 12 in which two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson,  were arrested for trespassing at a Starbucks in Philadelphia’s City Center district for absolutely no reason other than being black.


Despite misguided campaigns in the past, Starbucks took this recent incident of racial bias more seriously, as they should.


Johnson delivered an in-person apology, according to The Washington Post, to the two men, calling the circumstances that led to their arrests “reprehensible.” He later added in an interview on Good Morning America, that “what happened to those two gentlemen was wrong” and that the company was reviewing the actions of the store manager who had called police.


In the press release Johnson went on to say, “While this is not limited to Starbucks, we’re committed to being a part of the solution. Closing our stores for racial bias training is just one step in a journey that requires dedication from every level of our company and partnerships in our local communities.”


Once I got over the fact that Johnson qualified his “commitment” to the solution by shifting blame onto others, I realized that he has a point.  This incident isn’t isolated. It happens all the time. Given the current political and social climate, this incident made waves, inciting protests and with high-profile public figures like Questlove vowing to boycott the coffee giant and encouraging others to do the same.


Unfortunately, one session of unconscious bias training, even for as close to 175,000 Starbucks employees, isn’t going to do much.  As valuable as the education they are trying to administer is, it’s happening far too late in their employee-training process. If “conscious inclusion” needs to be taught to grown folks, it is definitely not going to happen in one day.


Companies have to make racial and cultural issues normative within professional development work. One day of training on any subject, does not establish the capacity to connect.


While I wish Starbucks, and many other companies, would have been proactive, creating a system of regular professional development support for their employees, and adopting a framework of equity from the get-go, they and their predominantly white, male leadership have been slow on the uptake.


Luckily, the pressure is increasing and they can’t hide behind market dominance and act like racial equality is a priority when it is convenient for them any longer.


The best part of all this is that the curriculum for the training is said to be crafted with leaders from the Equal Justice Initiative, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Demos, and the Anti-Defamation League. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will also be involved.


The partnerships formed in order to craft this curriculum appear to be an inclusive start to bringing change within the company, and it gives me hope for meaningful training materials at least.


Last week, Starbucks leadership said they have started reviewing training and practices “to make important reforms where necessary to ensure our stores always represent our Mission and Values, by providing a safe and inclusive environment for our customers and partners.”

They also mentioned that once that process is completed, they plan to make educational materials available to other companies, including their licensee partners, for use with their employees and leadership.


As surprising as it may be, Starbucks might actually be living out their founding values that are “based on humanity and inclusion,” according to Schultz, who joined Johnson and other senior Starbucks leaders in Philadelphia immediately following the recent racial bias incident, to meet with community leaders and Starbucks partners.

He went on to say, “We will learn from our mistakes and reaffirm our commitment to creating a safe and welcoming environment for every customer.”

We look forward to seeing it, Starbucks. I hope to see other companies follow similar paths.