Toriano Porter

Without more action to combat racial discrimination, Starbucks’ talk is cheap

Rashon Nelson, left, listens to a reporter’s question alongside Donte Robinson during an interview on April 18 in Philadelphia.
Rashon Nelson, left, listens to a reporter’s question alongside Donte Robinson during an interview on April 18 in Philadelphia. AP

Glenn Singleton had two responses to the announcement that Starbucks planned to close its stores nationwide next month for a day of unconscious bias training after an alleged racial discrimination incident that led to the arrest of two black men in Philadelphia.

Singleton, a nationwide leader on racial equity work who founded Pacific Educational Group, applauded Starbucks for swiftly taking action and scheduling racial bias training for employees. And he implored Starbucks to work on racial healing, both internally and externally.

“From the top down,” said Singleton, whose company partners with organizations to help employees intentionally, explicitly and comprehensively address persistent racial disparities.

Starbucks’ action came on the heels of an embarrassing and disquieting incident. Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson said they arrived recently at a Philadelphia Starbucks for an afternoon meeting. A few minutes later, a manager called 911, the two entrepreneurs told “Good Morning America.”

In a widely circulated video, the men are seen being questioned by officers before being led off in handcuffs. They were accused of trespassing but were later released from jail hours later after law enforcement officials declined to press charges.

An attorney representing Nelson and Robinson said the men were discriminated against because of their race. Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in hotels, restaurants, theaters and other public accommodations.

Initially, the Seattle-based Starbucks Corp. denied discrimination, saying that the location where the arrests occurred has a policy stipulating that restrooms are for paying customers only.

The manager and company mutually agreed to part ways days after the incident went viral. But based on the video and witness statements, the call to police was premature and unwarranted.

It’s noble that Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson plans to close more than 8,000 U.S. stores for several hours on the afternoon of May 29 to conduct racial-bias training for nearly 175,000 workers. The training mandate will eventually include newly hired employees.

But let’s call the announcement of the one-day training session what it is: a PR strategy more than anything that leads to substantial change. Starbucks needs to implement stringent policies that not only address unconscious bias but other issues pertaining to race, gender and sexual orientation.

It takes time to change the hearts and minds of employees, Singleton said.

“It’s sort of outrageous to think culture within an organization can change in one day,” Singleton said.

Imagine how effective racial equity training would be if it were tied to performance bonuses and promotions.

“You want employees to develop themselves,” Singleton said. “This can be tied to personal and skill development” as it relates to race and diversity issues. “That is just one of the ways Starbucks could develop a highly conscious workforce.”

Nelson and Robinson recommended in a sit-down meeting with Johnson that the company implement changes such as posting a customer bill of rights in stores and adopting new policies regarding customer ejections, racial profiling and racial discrimination.

Jenny Kincaid Julian, founder of Kansas City-based SocialWorx PR, agreed policy change is the best route. Companies, Julian said, have been offering these types of mea culpas for years, adding corporations that truly want to be part of the solution need to look beyond one-time gestures such as workshops on race and truly start connecting with people.

“Relations and relationships are key,” Julian said. “Conversation is a must. Be sincere, engage with the community, and start moving the needle that way instead of telling people how they should and shouldn’t act.”

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