Swift action halts brewing racism storm for Starbucks

This morning I met a colleague in a coffee shop. They were late, so I waited to order until they arrived. I asked to use the bathroom. No one lifted an eyebrow. But then I'm white.

Starbucks deserves a little credit for its reaction, argues Gareth Thomas
Starbucks deserves a little credit for its reaction, argues Gareth Thomas

Last week, two 23-year-old entrepreneurs did exactly the same thing in a Starbucks in Philadelphia.

A member of staff called the police, the men were arrested for trespassing and left in handcuffs.

They were black.

It’s very difficult not to view the colour of those two men’s skin as the reason why they were treated so abhorrently.

That’s certainly the conclusion Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson came to. After an initial response that was – admittedly – a little weak, he quickly went on to condemn the way the men were treated as ‘reprehensible’.

The incident shows just how far we still have to go as a society when it comes to treating everyone equally.

But I believe the swift response of Starbucks should give us a little hope that mainstream attitudes are changing.

Johnson subsequently met the two men to apologise in person.

But I think Starbucks deserves a little credit for its reaction.

I don’t know Johnson, but this does look to me like the actions of a CEO that is genuinely trying to be progressive.

This week he moved beyond words to action, announcing that 8,000 US stores would close on May 29 to give racial bias training to about 175,000 workers.

In doing so, he has put the emphasis on the company changing.

Whilst he also offered the two men Starbucks jobs as an apology, he was clear that the possible ‘good to come out of this’ would be the company rethinking unconscious bias.

Some have argued he should have called the root cause out simply as racism, rather than unconscious bias.

I tend to agree, though I’m sympathetic to the legal implications if he was to get that call wrong.

After all, the member of staff who called the police is no longer working there.

Swift action has got Starbucks on the front foot and the contrast with the bungled handling of the American Airlines passenger incident couldn’t be starker.

Of course, the real test will be if the action taken stops this kind of thing happening again at Starbucks.

But large corporations have the ability to influence millions of employees and customers in a positive way.

They will always be vulnerable to individual staff making the wrong choices, but should be applauded when they try to do the right thing in response.

Gareth Thomas is the co-founder of Capella

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