clock menu more-arrow no yes
Starbucks will close stores May 29 to conduct racial bias training.
Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Filed under:

We Asked Brands How They Handled Their Own Racial Bias Incidents — Most Didn’t Answer

Starbucks is closing this afternoon for racial bias training, but its far from the first brand accused of discrimination.

Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

Starbucks has arguably made the most dramatic move yet for a company accused of racism: It’s closing 8,000 of its stores today so employees can undergo racial bias training.

The coffee chain made the announcement in April after activists protested the chain when an employee’s alleged act of racial bias led to the arrest of two black men. Last month, a staffer at a Philadelphia Starbucks called the police on Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson for sitting at a table without ordering. The men, only in the store for a few minutes, were waiting for a business associate to arrive. When the police showed up, they arrested Robinson and Nelson on “suspicion of trespassing.”

The men were later released. As video of the incident went viral, Starbucks ramped up its response from a short Twitter apology to an appearance on CBS This Morning from founder and executive chair Howard Schultz, who said that he was “embarrassed” and “ashamed.” Then came the announcement about the store closures and the racial bias training.

Some experts question how effective a single day of diversity programming will be, saying that Starbucks’s response may be more of a “symbolic gesture.” Still, the company’s decision to close stores for an afternoon for diversity training is the most visible public measure taken by a company accused of racial profiling. And Starbucks plans to take action beyond the bias training, it said on in a statement about the workshop.

Protest against Starbucks
Protesters demonstrate against Starbucks after a manager had two black patrons arrested.
Photo: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Starbucks is not the first chain to face protests after incidents of racial discrimination in their stores. From Saks to Ross to Walmart, racial bias is a pervasive issue in retail.

We asked nine retailers who’ve had racial profiling incidents in the past a simple question: “What measures are in place to prevent racial targeting in the future?” Six did not answer Racked’s requests for comment. And the brands who did answer didn’t give clear responses.

Brand: Saks Fifth Avenue

Problem: In December 2017, police at a Saks location in Michigan accused a woman named Dana Hale of credit card fraud after she bought $6,731 in designer accessories and Christmas gifts. “They profiled me because I was in sweats,” Hale told WXYZ Detroit at the time. “Because I was black that they could just treat people any kind of way.”

Response: Saks started an internal investigation, according to WXYZ Detroit.

What have they done to prevent racial targeting in the future? “Our foremost responsibility is providing a great customer experience,” a Saks spokesperson said in an email to Racked. “To that end, we have sales personnel training as well as policies and procedures that center on diversity, inclusion and ensuring that we treat every customer and each other with respect.”

Brand: Old Navy

Problem: In early February, an Old Navy shopper named James Conley III was stopped by a store employee to ask if he wanted to purchase the jacket he was wearing — a blue puffer that he’d bought on a previous trip to the chain. Conley, who is black, said in a Facebook post that he had to get the district manager to review the store’s surveillance tape to prove that he walked in wearing the jacket, after which he didn’t receive an apology.

Response: Old Navy, which is owned by Gap Inc, temporarily closed that location and said that it was investigating the matter. It later fired the staff members involved in the incident.

What have they done to prevent racial targeting in the future? “Inclusivity is core to Old Navy’s values, and discrimination of any kind is not tolerated,” said a spokesperson for the brand. “As part of the brand’s ongoing commitment to our customers and employees, we have established a series of training opportunities with our employees globally, starting with training our store leaders on unconscious bias.”

Brand: Walmart

Problem: America’s biggest retailer was sued by a woman for racial discrimination, after she noticed that the only hair care products that were locked up on the shelves were those marketed to black women.

Response: Walmart issued a statement saying, “We take this situation seriously and look forward to addressing it with the court.”

What have they done to prevent racial targeting in the future? A spokesperson for Walmart, reached by phone, told Racked that this was not a case of racial profiling so much as a “procedural issue.” Walmart tracks which items are stolen most often in each store and, accordingly, locks up different items in different locations. For example, in the Florida Keys, where fishing is a popular activity, he said, sporting goods often need to be locked up

As for the ongoing lawsuit, the spokesperson declined to comment.

Brand: Ross Dress for Less

Problem: In 2014, Shaquoya Burns entered a Ross store in Portland, Oregon, where a manager allegedly told her that she was banned from all locations of the chain. According to Burns, the manager said she had photos and videos of her stealing. The purported thief was African American, like Burns. Even when Burns returned with a police officer, however, the manager reportedly refused to show them the surveillance tape and photos. Burns filed a $230,000 lawsuit against Ross.

Response: Ross did not respond to the Oregonian’s request for comment when the lawsuit was filed in 2015.

What have they done to prevent racial targeting in the future? Representatives for the company didn’t answer Racked’s request for comment.

Brands: Macy’s and Barneys

Problem: After fielding numerous complaints from customers about racial profiling in the Macy’s flagship store in Manhattan and Barneys New York, the New York attorney general launched an investigation into practices at both stores.

Response: In 2014, Macy’s agreed to pay $650,000 in penalties and Barneys agreed to pay $525,000.

What have they done to prevent racial targeting in the future? A representative for Macy’s provided the chain’s customer bill of rights, which is posted in stores and online. A rep for Barneys didn’t answer Racked’s request for comment.

Brand: Dillard’s

Problem: Damien Solomon left a Dillard’s department store in suburban Atlanta in 2008 when he was accused and, later, arrested for stealing a pair of Levi’s.

Response: Surveillance footage cleared Solomon of shoplifting. A DeKalb County jury awarded him $600,000.

What have they done to prevent racial targeting in the future? Representatives for the company didn’t answer Racked’s request for comment.

Brand: CVS

Problem: Four ex-employees of CVS filed a lawsuit in 2015 accusing the drug store giant of telling them to profile black and Latino customers. They also said managers used racist language while talking to them, telling one to “hide like a monkey.”

A year later, a fifth employee said CVS instructed him to profile customers of color.

Response: CVS has denied the allegations.

What have they done to prevent racial targeting in the future? Representatives for the company didn’t answer Racked’s request for comment.

Brand: Zara

Problem: In 2015, the Center for Popular Democracy surveyed workers at the New York stores of Spanish retailer Zara. The survey found that the workers believed black customers were targets of racial profiling and that lighter-skinned employees had better hours and more opportunities for promotion in the company than darker-skinned employees.

Response: Zara denied the allegations.

What have they done to prevent racial targeting in the future? Representatives for the company didn’t answer Racked’s request for comment.


Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson
Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, the two men arrested at a Starbucks, tell their story on "Good Morning America."
Photo: ABC/Getty Images

Of the big chains that have been accused of racial bias, Starbucks stands out for its big, public response to the issue. But even their training afternoon is just “one step.” Terence Long, communications director for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, in Oakland, California, calls Starbucks’s move “a start.”

“An afternoon is one step,” he says. “It’s all kind of a Band-Aid when you look at the long history of racial injustice that has created the systems and attitudes these incidents have stemmed from, including the criminal justice system that targets black, brown, and poor people.”

He said one afternoon of training isn’t a great a way to address historic and systemic racism in this country. Additionally, he says corporations that make headlines for racial bias should review their hiring practices. What is the racial makeup of their managerial staff or their corporate leadership?

He says too often companies simply engage in “damage control after people have already been harmed.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Macy’s did not respond to comment. A representative for the company did in fact provide the company’s customer bill of rights by press time.

Farewell From Racked

Best of Racked

Best of Racked Essays

Best of Racked

Best of Racked Funny Stuff