In 2008, a book called "Stuff White People Like: A Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions," noted that "white people love Starbucks" though they profess to hate it. In 2017, the online publication The Root listed "your barber shop becomes a Starbucks" as one of the downsides of gentrification.
Starbucks has at times been synonymous with white America, and recently it found itself under a spotlight in the nation’s ongoing conversation about race. On April 12, two black men, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, were arrested when they refused to leave a Center City Philadelphia Starbucks. They were waiting for a third man to show up, but a manager ordered them to leave because they hadn’t ordered anything. Both were arrested and spent nine hours in custody.
Starbucks’ response to this horrifying event is unprecedented: the chain is closing 8,000 stores on Tuesday for company-wide racial bias training. While some have called this an overreaction, anything less would have been aptly labeled an under-reaction. When every action is filtered through social media, companies need to offer grand gestures to show they’re serious. Starbucks’ response is just that: It’s smart public relations strategy even though the problem it addresses runs deeper than any length of training could realistically tackle.
Why Starbucks’ move makes sense
To consider why Starbucks’ grand gesture is smart, look at how the company has flipped the narrative on this issue. If Starbucks had merely offered an apology, then the brand would have stood for white indifference to black Americans’ very real differential treatment. By taking the issue seriously, Starbucks has put itself on the right side of the discussion. The company is acknowledging that there is a double-standard on race and is attempting to do something about it. Starbucks has even been vocal on this issue before. In 2015, the chain launched Race Together, a campaign that sought to spark dialogue among baristas and patrons over race relations. It was a failure, but many people similarly concluded that Starbucks’ heart was in the right place.
It could also work—to an extent
Corporate re-training initiatives are Dilbert-esque affairs that may be hit or miss from rank-and-file employees. After Bill O’Reilly was ousted from Fox News for sexual harassment, everyone who appeared on the network had to take part in similar retraining. The same training happened at NBC after Matt Lauer was dismissed.
While the goal in many cases is to avoid lawsuits, in a recent Left, Right, and Center podcast, National Review editor Rich Lowry conceded that even though he thought the exercise after O'Reily's ouster was silly, having to go through it likely made women on the network feel more secure that it doesn’t tolerate such harassment.
The same is likely to be true for Starbucks. Though it’s safe to say some employees may view the initiative as not the best use of time, black Starbucks customers may feel more comfortable there.
The problem of unequal treatment of black Americans is a much bigger topic than one coffee chain can address. Starbucks could close permanently and the discussion of race relations in America would continue. But Starbucks at least is attempting to do the best thing that a corporation can do in this situation: it demonstrated that it takes the issue seriously and put that concern ahead of short-term profits.
Todd Barrish is president of Indicate Media Public Relations.