On Starbucks & Corporate Accountability For Racial Bias

I’ve gotten a lot of questions from everyday people and from reporters and journalists about the recent controversy that Starbucks has found itself in after a patron recorded on her cell phone footage of two black men being handcuffed and taken to jail for the crime of sitting in a Starbucks while black.

These two men were doing what many people do in coffee shops, which is to say, nothing much. They were waiting for a friend to arrive, so that they could presumably drink coffee together and try to conduct a business conversation over the loud hiss of milk steamers, the regular shouts of “Lar….Lar…ine? Lar….one? Coffee for L….Larry?” and the constant hum of conversation from all the other people around you also trying to have conversations. This inefficient use of time spent over $7 bean water is a regular occurrence in modern day US society.

And so is blatant racial discrimination against black people. Two things America loves, coffee and racism. Together in one convenient location.

While this country can somehow explain away video of police shooting a black teenager 14 times while he’s walking away from officers or video of police officers choking an unarmed black man to death for the crime of selling loose cigarettes, or video of police officers shooting a 12 year old black boy to death for playing with a toy gun in a park, nearly everyone who saw black men being walked out of a Starbucks in handcuffs for doing what we all do at a Starbucks was shaking their heads and saying, “That’s fucked up.”

And while our police department will gleefully call our dead teenagers “thugs” and explain why they needed to be killed by the people paid presumably to protect them, Starbucks has in comparison taken the revolutionary stance of saying “Um, yeah, that was fucked up of us. We should’t have done that. We’re sorry.”

If that weren’t enough, Starbucks announced today that they would be shutting down every store for an evening at the end of this month to conduct nationwide anti-bias training.

Seriously, are ANY cops watching this and getting ideas? Any of them? Please?

As Starbucks tries to take some steps toward accountability and repairing their images, many people who know that Starbucks is likely not the last business to be caught treating black people like shit are asking: What now? What can businesses like Starbucks do to make this right?

As a black person who buys things, eats at restaurants, waits in lines, and yes- drinks coffee, I’m here to offer a few pointers to businesses and organizations that are looking to handle their own “Starbucks moment”, or prevent a future one from happening.

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You need to start from the presumption that your employees, management, training, and even products are riddled with implicit racial bias. Every single aspect of our culture is filled with racial bias. Our books, our movies, our music, our schools, our government. There is no way that anybody gets to be an adult without absorbing a healthy dose of that, no matter our intentions. If you start out your anti-bias work with the idea that you are educating a few “bad apples” instead of educating yourself and everyone around you, you and your employees will not internalize any anti-bias training or effectively put it to work

Hearts and minds matter less than rules and consequences. Yes, we really do need to put more effort into seeing the implicit racial bias that we have, and understanding how that harms people of color. But even if you have anti-bias training every day, you will still have employees who will leave class saying, “yeah, but fuck black people.” No matter what bigotries people may have, what they do or do not do at work is largely dictated by what they are expected to do and what they know that they cannot do without facing real consequences. If you do not have clear policies for how you will address complaints of racial bias, clear policies for how you will penalize patterns of racial bias, and clear training on how management can recognize and document racial bias, you will not see a substantial reduction in racial bias. Racial bias persists for a lot of reasons, but the number one reason why it persists is because it’s easy. If you want it to stop, you need to make it a lot less easy.

Racial equity needs to be built into the bones of your business. There is no easy fix for racial bias in business or in any organization. You cannot bring in a consultant for a day to talk about racism and expect to have any lasting effect other than the ability for your employees to comment on facebook whenever some racist shit goes viral that one day someone came and talked to them about race and it made them sad for a few hours so they totally understand how people of color are feeling. Is racial equity a part of your profit model? Are people of color customers that you are courting and actively trying to serve to the best of your ability every day? Are you thinking about their specific needs? What products they want? What environment would make them comfortable? What marketing would appeal to them? What would make them loyal customers? Are people of color employees that you want to recruit, retain and promote? Are you thinking about their specific needs? What they need from a work environment to feel comfortable, safe and valued? If you do not have employees on your regular payroll dedicated to this work, then you are not dedicated enough to racial justice to make a measurable and lasting impact on the racial bias in your company. There are no shortcuts here.

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The general idea is this: racial bias is a complex system of assumptions, privileges and oppressions that has worked its way through just every major part of our society. It has endured for hundreds of years because it is only easily seen by those at the ass-end of it. Those of us who bear the brunt of racial bias and oppression every day end up having to not only battle that bias and oppression, but also convince everyone else that it even exists. It is very hard for the majority of the population to see how the everyday businesses, agencies, and organizations that we interact with are perpetrating harmful racial bias, and even harder for the majority of the population to see how they are perpetrating harmful racial bias themselves. It is hard to see how something that can feel like the air you breathe to most, can be the storm you drown in to others.

The work is not easy, and it is not quick, but it is necessary and long overdue. Racial bias doesn’t just ruin someone’s day. It is cutting people of color out of employment opportunities, limiting our access to public spaces, denying us resources, and endangering our lives. Think of the incidences of police violence I mentioned at the beginning of this post and think about what could have happened to those two black men in Starbucks if they had resisted arrest in any way or made any sort of sudden movement around those officers.

We need to be more intentional in addressing racial bias in our society by finding its roots wherever we encounter it and doing the deep work of integrating racial equity principles, priorities and safeguards into every institution we have. Because right now, racial bias is manufactured and maintained in just about every institution we have.

While this may seem extreme, like too large a task, here is a silver lining. Chances are, you work intimately in or with a few institutions or businesses. Now that you know that this work needs to be done, you can step up to do your part to start this anti-bias work, or encourage it with any business that is trying to get your patronage. Every day we have an opportunity make a measurable impact on the racial bias within the businesses and organizations that we interact with. And every time we fail to do so is a lost opportunity that also has a measurable impact in helping to maintain systems of racial bias and oppression. I hope Starbucks decides to make the right impact, and I hope that you, whoever you are, will join them as well.