Is Starbucks leaning forward and setting the example of how to handle racial insensitivity or are they orchestrating a masterful public relations campaign? In the era of Black Lives Matter, Hands up, don’t shoot, and I Can’t Breathe are they fearing a “No Black Coffee Here” tagline? On April 17, 2018 Starbucks issued a press release announcing the closing of all of its stores nationwide on May 29th for Racial-Bias Education. This came on the heels of the arrests of Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson in a Philadelphia Starbucks while waiting for a friend. Although the arrests drew immediate attention including civil rights stalwarts like the NAACP, Urban League, a number of celebrities and even its African American Chief Operating Officer Rosalind Brewer, we need to take a step back and decide whether this is a sign of progress or just clever PR.
The Starbucks Newsroom touts the closing of more than 8,000 Starbucks company-owned stores and offices across the United States as a ” conversation and learning session on race, bias and the building of a diverse welcoming company.” Starbucks executive vice president, U.S. Retail, Rossann Williams goes on to say “Our hope is that these learning sessions and discussions will make a difference within and beyond our stores.” But let’s not try to start saving the world too fast. In 2015 Starbucks launched a similar initiative: “Race Together“.
The goal of that campaign was to start a dialog with its customers on race relations in the United States. The backdrop then was the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner which lead to the Black Lives Matter movement. This initiative included an all hands meeting led by Starbucks’ Chairman, President and CEO Howard Schultz and open forums in Oakland, Los Angeles, St. Louis, New York and Chicago. President and CEO Howard Schultz declared that “…we at Starbucks should be willing to talk about these issues in America. Not to point fingers or to place blame, and not because we have answers, but because staying silent is not who we are.” But yet, three short years later Starbucks faces it’s own racial dilemma. So, how could a company that prides itself on outreach, community and social consciousness not be a beacon of hope?
Maybe its because it takes more than training to solve America’s race problem. Race is so deeply entrenched in the fabric of this country that dialog alone isn’t enough. Dialog is always good but its only a start. Color has been an issue for over two centuries. The institutionalization of racism needs to be rooted out at the core. What does it take to root it out at its core? Be aggressive! This goes not only top Starbucks but all institutions trying to attack this disease. Be unyielding, unapologetic, and persistent!
Do either of the images above refelct the image Starbucks wants to portray on this issue? Hardly. But it’s the back to business aspect that falls short of the radical treatment required to clean up the racial residue that palgues the country. Don’t get me wrong – although I question their motives at least they are doing something. If it’s PR, it’s timely PR. If it’s sincere, let’s see it permeate all that they do – even the landing page of their website. And to those companies that haven’t even tried, remember the words attributed to Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” or a more common interpretation of this phase “evil flourishes when good people do nothing.”