On April 12, 2018, a white store manager at a Philadelphia Starbucks in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood called the police on two Black men who were there for a meeting and had not yet made a purchase. The men were soon arrested, escorted from the store in handcuffs, fingerprinted and photographed and held for approximately eight hours. The incident was video recorded and circulated online by a white customer. The video received millions of views, sparking protests at the Rittenhouse Square store and a global online conversation about discrimination in retail, often with the hashtag #BoycottStarbucks.
The Philadelphia Police Department initially stated that the officers had done nothing wrong in arresting the men for trespassing at a Starbucks.
Two days later, Kevin Johnson, Starbucks’ CEO, released a statement apologizing and calling the incident reprehensible.
On April 17, Starbucks’ then-Chairman and Founder Howard Schultz called us to discuss how to prevent similar incidents in the future, and shared his idea of conducting a company-wide training on racial bias.
Schultz asked us to act as advisors on this effort, which we agreed to do on a pro bono basis.
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Our Approach to the Project. Although advising corporations on anti-bias training is not a role that either of us had undertaken in the past, we agreed to offer our guidance and feedback to Starbucks after a number of considerations. First, we were struck by the company’s approach. Within 24 hours of the incident in the Philadelphia store, leaders at the highest levels of the company had forthrightly recognized the incident as one involving racial bias, had expressed the company’s preparedness to confront the issue straight on and had made arrangements to visit the Philadelphia store and community where the incident happened.
Second, we recognized that Starbucks’ presence in thousands of communities coupled with the company’s sincere and unequivocal commitment to address bias and discrimination presented a unique opportunity to deploy and embed a model of corporate leadership within communities around the country by a well-recognized and respected corporation. We also believed that as advocates for racial justice, we had a stake in seeing an endeavor as ambitious as this succeed, so that more companies would lean into addressing the ways that racism impacts their businesses.
Finally, the incident created a moment of national, and even international, conversation about the persistence of racism in public accommodations. At a time when many powerful political and corporate actors have a stake in denying the existence of racism, we felt it was a positive contribution to the public narrative to hear a forthright recognition of the problem from one of the world’s most ubiquitous public-facing corporations.
We reached out to dozens of our allied organizations in the civil rights and racial justice fields
and had conversations with local stakeholders, including the grassroots community leadership in Philadelphia and, eventually, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson themselves, to get input and ideas about what Starbucks should do.
From our earliest conversations with the team at Starbucks, we have emphasized that this crisis unfolded in the context of a decades-long struggle of African Americans for dignity, respect and treatment as full citizens in the public space. Some of the most transformative campaigns during the Civil Rights Movement – the lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the Montgomery Bus Boycott – were centered around the demand for equal treatment in places that accommodate the public. This battle culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations. That landmark legislation resulted in a transformation of segregated public spaces throughout the U.S. But the struggle for equal treatment in public accommodations has continued. High-profile cases involving restaurants like Denny’s,
retail establishments such as Macy’s and Barney’s,
and more recently golf clubs and nightclubs, demonstrate the stubborn persistence of racism in public accommodations.
The formational identity of Starbucks is centered around the creation of the “third place” – not home, not work, but a public space where all are welcome and people can share “the Starbucks experience.” But the “third place” cannot exist outside of the history and reality of racism in public accommodations. Indeed, the ambitious vision of Starbucks’ founder to create a “third place” in which all are welcome engages, by its very terms, the history and contemporary struggle of African Americans for dignity in the public space. Thus, the awful, humiliating experience of Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson in the Philadelphia Starbucks provoked a necessary discussion within the company about the need to confront the full dimensions of what it means to steward public spaces in our country.
It is our hope that the willingness of Starbucks to engage this difficult reality will inspire other public-facing corporate actors to do so as well.
A note on “Diversity,” “Equity” and “Inclusion.” Throughout this report, we use the term “racial equity” as the desired goal for the transformation process that Starbucks is undertaking. We define racial equity as both a process and an outcome in which decision-makers and participants in a system ensure that equal opportunity for success is real, taking into consideration how power dynamics between and among different racial and ethnic identity groups shape opportunity.
Racial and ethnic diversity is essential, particularly in decision-making positions, to achieve the kinds of inputs and perspectives needed for racial equity, as is meaningful inclusion of people from subordinated identity groups – beyond just the presence of these groups that diversity offers. In that way, diversity and inclusion are essential components of an ultimate goal of a racially equitable institution. While diversity encourages employment of individuals with varying backgrounds and experiences in the corporation, it does not guarantee that those people will be fully and equally included in the fabric of the organization, nor that the company’s systems, practices and policies are designed to create racially equitable outcomes.
Once an institution accepts the premise that all people, regardless of their background, have the potential to thrive and contribute to the success of an organization, they can begin to recognize systemic disparities and gaps (for example, a mostly white leadership team, or lower retention for employees of color) as flaws to be addressed within a system that, like most all systems in the United States, has been infected with the bankrupt ideology of racial hierarchy and bias.
The exciting work begins when leaders move from passive acceptance of the disparities so common in our society to recognizing that a system that was created by human actors can be unmade by human actors, one institution at a time.
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