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Could Starbucks’s Bias Training Affect How Businesses Handle Racism?

More than 8,000 locations will close so employees can receive training.

Starbucks Coffee
Starbucks Coffee will close 8,000 US stores this afternoon for racial bias training.
Photo: Horacio Villalobos - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

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If you’re wondering if the racial bias training Starbucks is holding for staffers today will be effective, check out the preview of the curriculum it posted on its website last week. The sneak peek includes a four-minute video featuring Starbucks chair Howard Schultz, CEO Kevin Johnson, board member Mellody Hobson, rapper Common, and filmmaker Stanley Nelson.

“We are here to make Starbucks a place where everyone feels welcome,” Johnson says in the video.

Since April, however, the coffee chain has battled the opposite impression. Then, police escorted two black men — Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson — out of a Philadelphia Starbucks after an employee reported them for trespassing because they didn’t immediately place orders. Caught on video, the arrest prompted cries of racial profiling because many patrons spend time in Starbucks without making a purchase right away. In this particular case, Robinson and Nelson were waiting for a business associate to arrive and had only been in the establishment for a few minutes before police were called. Their ordeal led to protests and calls for a boycott against Starbucks.

The company has been trying to repair its image ever since. In an unprecedented move, it will close 8,000 stores nationwide this afternoon for bias training. Advisers from the Equal Justice Initiative, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Demos, and other civil rights groups helped shape the curriculum for the training. Starbucks says it intends to educate its team about bias and inclusion far beyond the afternoon workshop and will continue to broach the subjects in the coming months and years.

But will the steps it has taken manage to lure in the customers who’ve shied away from the chain after the Philadelphia incident? What effect will Starbucks’s efforts at damage control have on other companies accused of racial profiling?

Racked spoke with Stephanie Creary, an assistant professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, about how the challenges Starbucks faces and its response to them may influence other businesses in the dining and retail sectors. While the Starbucks incident certainly doesn’t spell the end of “shopping while black,” it marks a shift in how businesses might approach future claims of racial bias.

Questions and answers have been edited for space and clarity.

Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson
Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were arrested for trespassing at a Philadelphia Starbucks.
Photo: ABC/Getty Images

Starbucks’s decision to close 8,000 stores for an afternoon is, frankly, remarkable. I’ve never heard of any other retailer taking such an action in light of racial bias claims. How unique would you say such a move is?

That practice in and of itself is really unique. Typically, we’ll see an in-person training or something that happens online. That’s not unprecedented. The fact they’re going to be closed, shut down business, is something that’s unprecedented. That’s a unique strategy that tells you how important it is to them that their employees develop more competency.

Some civil rights activists have argued that an afternoon is not enough for the company to make substantive change. What do you think about that?

Civil rights activists want larger social change, but what Starbucks is trying to do with this training is change the behavior of employees, how they treat customers. How can they give them a sense of belonging, treat them in a way the company values? People are skeptical if they’ve been somehow led to believe that a company training is going to solve the social problems of the world. But what Starbucks is trying to do is give customers better service. People are conflating the scale of the problem [racial bias] with the scale of the initiative.

A few weeks after the Starbucks incident, employees at a Missouri Nordstrom Rack called police on three black teens and falsely accused them of shoplifting. In response, Nordstrom Rack president Geevy Thomas apologized to the young men in person. I doubt a CEO would have personally apologized to racial profiling victims even a few months ago. Do you think we’re seeing evidence of a Starbucks effect?

Well, I wouldn’t call it a Starbucks effect. It’s what happens when one company practices in a certain kind of a way. Starbucks puts a practice into place and becomes a model for someone else to follow. When it goes well, [it’s] more likely the next company is going to practice it. It’s the nature of competition. If you see somebody else doing something, you’re probably going to copy that.

I’ve seen many African Americans say on social media that they’re wary of visiting brick-and-mortar stores because of racial profiling incidents. They say they mostly shop online now, and the research bears out that a considerable percentage of black people are online shoppers. What do you think about this?

This isn’t just about online shopping. What we’re seeing is a reaction from people who are saying, “I don’t want to be in a situation where somebody is going to treat me poorly, so I’m just not going to engage. If I need something, I’m going to seek an alternative.” But this is actually not going to stop racial profiling. We can be profiled in non-shopping encounters, like during interactions with the police. [Online shopping] doesn’t solve the issues. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen in another aspect of your life. Stores need to know that if they don’t address this [racial profiling], it could hurt their bottom line.

Anti-Starbucks “Coffee is black!” sign.
A Starbucks protester with a “Coffee is black!” sign.
Photo: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Speaking of police, in 2015 Gallup found more black people felt discriminated against shopping and dining out during the previous month than they had during interactions with cops. Is that surprising?

People are more likely to come into contact with retailers than with police. Scientifically, that’s part of it. I haven’t seen police all day, but I’ve been in about four retail establishments.

We know that African Americans have a buying power of $1.2 trillion and are actually not the most likely group to shoplift. So why are black people so often treated more like criminals than customers?

Starbucks has a huge marketing team. They certainly know [the stats about African Americans]. They certainly know who their customers are. They’ve done all of the research. It’s hard to believe that they don’t already know this. But there’s often a disconnect between what the corporation believes is important and what happens on the ground. How do you relay that message to employees?

The message is not that black customers are going to spend a lot in stores but that you should treat all customers as if they are valuable. How do you end transactions with them? How do you greet customers? How do you build the tools for relationships when there’s not conflict? You should be offering the same warmth to everyone who walks into the store.

I’m glad that you mentioned warmth because I interviewed someone for a previous story about “shopping while black,” and she said something that stuck with me. Salespeople hadn’t followed her around stores; they’d simply ignored her.

It’s that warmth. At my local Starbucks, which is literally around the block from the one [where the arrest occurred], people are lovely. They’ve always greeted me and treated me with warmth. I love going into Starbucks, and I don’t even drink coffee. I drink tea, but I like going in there because they’re nice to me. You go in there for the experience. You pay for that experience — $3 for tea instead of 50 cents. But when you’re a person of color, you realize that you’re just treated differently. It doesn’t mean people are being hateful. I think it’s being either invisible or hypervisible — that’s where the profiling comes in — and swinging between that pendulum.