Changing an entire system to make it fair for people of all races is hard. I should know as this is the work I've been doing for decades. Three years ago when I was the president of Race Forward, Starbucks threw their hat into the ring launching the "Race Together" collaborative campaign with USA Today. Their idea was that baristas writing "Race Together" on customer's cups would spark meaningful conversations on US race relations.
I appreciated their effort but had a feeling it might not go as they imagined. The day they announced the Race Together campaign was the first I'd heard of it, and none of our sister organizations had been involved either. It's challenging to create meaningful dialogues about racial justice that can engage everyday people, but there's a fair amount of expertise across the country about what works and what doesn't.
Unsurprisingly, Starbucks was hit with a tsunami of backlash. Representing Race Forward, I wrote an open letter to them, encouraging them to dig deeper and extending an offer to help. The cup-writing part of the campaign ended early although CEO Howard Schultz pledged to do more, including hire 10,000 employees from distressed neighborhoods. In the aftermath, I said this to the Washington Post:
“We have learned that healthy conversation about race takes courage and time,” Sen said in an interview Sunday. “I don’t know if writing on cups would have generated that good discussion.”
“After many years of being told we should all be colorblind, as if that was possible, a lot of people don’t know how to enter” a conversation about race, she added.`
In the last week, Starbucks stores have made headlines and social media trends again, this time for mistreating their Black customers. In Philadelphia, two Black men waiting for a friend to arrive were arrested and later released for trying to use the bathroom without making a purchase.
After the arrest went viral, Brandon Ward's video of being denied access to a Starbucks bathroom even after making a purchase also made the rounds.
In a surprising positive twist, rather than just issue an apology, Starbucks announced that it will close all its US stores for racial bias training on May 29. That is a significant investment, in my view. Dropping an entire day's profit from 8,000 stores, that's no small matter. It signals some sincerity about addressing the racial bias that impacts Black customers on a daily basis.
Glenn Harris, the new President of Race Forward, agrees that Starbucks is taking a good first step to combat racism within the company but warns that a single action isn't enough.
Tackling implicit bias is a critical step for any institution working to combat racism. To root out bias, Starbucks must be explicit about race. They must also explore and address how racism plays out across the company--from the customer experience to who gets promoted to the demographics of their executive leadership.
There is a growing movement of institutions in this country that are committed over the long-term to advance solutions that combat racism. Starbucks, hand-in-hand with their employees and customers, has the opportunity to join this movement.
I agree that this training, if it is done well, will be a good move in the direction. And no one who has done this work for any amount of time thinks one day of training will be enough. I imagine Starbucks already knows that and is currently plotting out the next phase. I've had excellent results in other situations starting with a thorough, participatory racial-equity impact assessment of the whole system. But there are multiple entry points and paths forward, and a lot of help, if Starbucks is willing to put in the time, money and humanity.
Changing an entire system to make it fair to people of all races is hard. But it is also possible. The rewards when we succeed are transformative, as we can see here, here and here. I'll be following this story to see how this evolves, hoping Starbucks will provide a constructive model for corporate America on how to treat all of their customers well, for real.