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Est. April 5, 2002
April 19, 2018 - Issue 738

Starbucks Fails Racial Equity Test

"As well intentioned and sincere the CEO may be,
and I have no reason to doubt his intentions, he
offers nothing that would lead a black person to
believe that his actions will result in a significant
change in the behavior of Starbucks employees."

Back in 2015, the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, distributed a letter to Starbucks’ employees urging them to engage in open race dialog with customers. In reaction to the Michael Brown and Eric Garner killings, Schultz felt that his company should not be silent on race issues.

This week, three years later, Kevin Johnson, the current CEO of Starbucks apologized for the actions of a local Philadelphia Starbucks manager who called police after two Black men who were waiting for a friend refused to leave when the manager asked them to do so. The manager then called the police. After the manager’s call, at least six police officers arrived handcuffing and arresting the two men who were taken away without further incident.

So outraged at what they witnessed, several Starbucks customers captured the incident on cell phones and immediately uploaded the videos to YouTube. The videos went viral, leading to protests from BlackLivesMatter and others. A few of the white Starbucks customers said the two men were doing nothing out of the ordinary—they appeared to be dumbfounded. While the BLM protests were swift, black people did not express surprise. No – I didn’t find any expressions of dumbfoundedness from the black community. We’ve been here before.

Starbucks CEO, Kevin Johnson, went on the air officially apologizing and wrote a letter to Starbucks customers that was posted on the Starbucks website. I’ve posted his letter here:

Dear Starbucks Partners and Customers:

By now, you may be aware of a disheartening situation in one of our Philadelphia-area stores this past Thursday, that led to a reprehensible outcome.

I’m writing this evening to convey three things:

  • First, to once again express our deepest apologies to the two men who were arrested with a goal of doing whatever we can to make things right.

  • Second, to let you know of our plans to investigate the pertinent facts and make any necessary changes to our practices that would help prevent such an occurrence from ever happening again.

  • And third, to reassure you that Starbucks stands firmly against discrimination or racial profiling.

In the coming days, I will be joining our regional vice president, Camille Hymes—who is on the ground in Philadelphia—to speak with partners, customers and community leaders as well as law enforcement. Most importantly, I hope to meet personally with the two men who were arrested to offer a face-to-face apology.

We have immediately begun a thorough investigation of our practices. In addition to our own review, we will work with outside experts and community leaders to understand and adopt best practices. The video shot by customers is very hard to watch and the actions in it are not representative of our Starbucks Mission and Values. Creating an environment that is both safe and welcoming for everyone is paramount for every store. Regretfully, our practices and training led to a bad outcome—the basis for the call to the Philadelphia police department was wrong. Our store manager never intended for these men to be arrested and this should never have escalated as it did.

We also will further train our partners to better know when police assistance is warranted. Additionally, we will host a company-wide meeting next week to share our learnings, discuss some immediate next steps and underscore our long-standing commitment to treating one another with respect and dignity. I know our store managers and partners work hard to exceed our customers’ expectations every day—which makes this very poor reflection on our company all the more painful.

Finally, to our partners who proudly wear the green apron and to customers who come to us for a sense of community every day: You can and should expect more from us. We will learn from this and be better.


Kevin Johnson

But here’s the thing. As well intentioned and sincere the CEO may be, and I have no reason to doubt his intentions, he offers nothing that would lead a black person to believe that these actions will result in a significant change in the behavior of Starbucks employees.

He talks about training the employees and working with outside experts and community leaders to understand and adopt best practices. At issue here is that this approach has been employed for decades by a countless number of organizations, yet both empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests that this country hasn’t made significant progress in the area of racial discrimination since the civil rights movement. This is made clear in a report published by the Pew Research Center.

One of the problems is that we seem to treat “training” as the panacea for our racial equity crisis. One of my favorite articles on the topic is found in a blog called In it, writer Heidi Schillinger argues that many mainstream organizations are approaching “training” as the destination for their racial equity work. I found this to be true in my 20-plus year career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. When it came to diversity and inclusion, training was treated as if it were the end game. In other words, assuming that racial inequity is what drives the need for training, then it would follow that the desired outcome would be racial equity.

So, if the goal is to achieve racial equity, it would then follow that the organization would institute a method of measuring the effectiveness of the training and a method of changing the course of action if it found that the remedy/training was not achieving the goal. But in all of the years I worked there, diversity training was conducted as if the act of implementing a training program itself was all the powers that be required—nothing more. Measuring outcomes wasn’t part of the deal. The box was checked when the training was implemented. The issue wouldn’t be revisited until the same time the next year when they’d do another “training”.

Heidi Schillinger at acknowledges the need for training, but she includes some additional efforts that could help organizations truly seeking to achieve racial equity to make real progress. They include:

  • Hire for Racial Equity Skills: Hire people already fluent in understanding systemic racism and strategies to achieve racial equity. This should be a required, not just a desired, qualification. At the very minimum, stop hiring people who don’t believe systemic racism exists.

  • Promote based on Racial Equity Skills: Like hiring, racial equity skills should be viewed as a required qualification. This means developing and using job performance “metrics” reflective of this requirement, and of course having evaluators/supervisors with high racial equity skills as well.

Here are a couple of ideas I’d throw in the mix:

  • Individual Racial Equity Assessment: I would advise organizations to implement a 360-degree racial equity performance assessment where an employee does a self assessment while also being evaluated by peers, subordinates, and superiors.

  • Customer Racial Equity Assessment: Companies should seek the input from customers and provide a mechanism that could facilitate the distribution of the customer’s opinion — like Yelp

  • Racial Equity Assessment Scorecard: After a local Los Angeles news station investigated the hygiene practices of several area restaurants, a letter grading system was developed to help customers make more informed choices when selecting a place to eat. Similarly, a scoring system that rated a company based on their racial equity consciousness would benefit consumers (and potential future employees) of those organizations.

From #RaceTogether

Ironically, in 2015 in response to the killings of unarmed black men by law enforcement officers, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz launched a bold race initiative asking baristas across the U.S. to spark discussions about race with customers by writing the words “Race Together” on their cups. The website posted a piece on Starbucks attempts at dealing with racism back in 2015. When ColorLines attempted to interview Starbucks management for the article, they were unavailable for comment. Then ColorLines discovered that Sarbucks itself had a lot of work to do in terms of bringing racial equity to the management level. Management was overwhelmingly white and the executive/worker pay ratio was also problematic.

But still, it was admirable that Starbucks took the initiative in 2015 to engage in conversations around race. Unfortunately and not surprisingly the program failed. Within 48 hrs of its launching, 2.5 billion impressions hit social media in what Howard Schultz described as “a barrage of negative tweets filled with “visceral hate and contempt for the company and for me personally.”

When Schultz was asked why he felt the need to involve Starbucks in the race debate, he said, “If we just keep going about our business and ringing the Starbucks register every day, then I think we’re in a sense part of the problem.” I agree with him. But after learning how the Starbucks “Race Together” program came into being, I was not surprised it failed. Here’s a link to an article in “Fast Company” that gives a lot more background on the developments that led to the program being launched. It is a must read.

From the time of it’s inception, this nation has been afflicted with a malignancy that, if left unattended, could result in our undoing. While I applaud Howard Schultz and the Starbucks team for taking a stab at addressing this difficult issue — using malignancy as a metaphor — what they did was tantamount to asking a make-up artist to care for squamous cell carcinomas on your nose. The initial treatment might look good but ultimately if an oncologist isn’t consulted the final outcome could be fatal.

Systemic racism, unconscious bias, racism without racists—these are heady matters that don’t have simple solutions but there is a body of work in the field of social science along with a growing population of social scientists, historians, and others in academia who have been working on answers. Being a successful business person doesn’t make you a great oncologist any more than it makes you adept at solving race relations. The fact that this country has struggled with this for hundreds of years is an indication that the solution will require a degree of seriousness and commitment that requires more than “best practices” or canned diversity trainings.

If you have other ideas, I’d love to hear from you. Please scroll down and leave a comment.

Below is a video of the Starbucks incident along with commentary. Editorial Board member and Columnist, Sharon Kyle, JD, is the Co-Founder and Publisher of the LA Progressive an online social justice magazine. With her husband Dick, she publishes several other print and online newsletters on political and social justice issues. In addition to her work with the LA Progressive, Ms. Kyle holds a Juris Doctorate, is an adjunct professor at Peoples College of Law in Los Angeles, and sits on the board of the ACLU Pasadena/Foothills Chapter and the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party. Click here to contact the LA Progressive and Ms. Kyle.




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