Starbucks isn’t the problem, America is

By Editorial Board

Fitting the stereotypes put on many of its customers, Starbucks is the performative ally that says it’s against racism as it gentrifies neighborhoods.

After two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks April 12 for not ordering anything from the store while waiting for a friend, the coffee chain was the target of demonstrations, protesting discriminatory treatment that was obvious even to loyal patrons. The scrutiny intensified after a black man in Los Angeles claimed Starbucks employees refused him entry to a bathroom, selectively enforcing a policy that was not applied to white patrons.

Starbucks responded by announcing it would close 8,000 stores for the afternoon of May 29 for employees to receive racial bias training. 

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said in a public statement the training “is just one step in a journey that requires dedication from every level of our company and partnerships in our local communities.” But can we trust a multi-billion dollar company to adequately address racism in its stores, and is it even productive to scrutinize a single business in a racist society?

The public’s reaction to Starbucks’ announcement has been divided. Some have seen it as a positive step and a sign the company is accepting accountability for the incident in Philadelphia, while others see the move as either unnecessary or inadequate.

Closing stores for racial bias education for a single afternoon, especially when the company has not provided specific information on how it plans to train employees, will not undo years of intense racist conditioning and demonization that has painted people of color as violent and dangerous.

Although a large company like Starbucks can influence the public’s stance on a pressing issue such as racial bias, the coffee chain’s actions still read as a public relations stunt to repair the company’s image after the arrests.

Despite possible missteps by the company, Starbucks should not be the target of outrage. The incident in Philadelphia was not a symbol of racism in the coffee chain, but one of many examples highlighting the deep-seated racism that the U.S. has yet to adequately address.

In the same way companies like Starbucks have treated activism as a trend, discussing social issues has fallen into the same trap. It is easier for Americans to condemn Starbucks employees for racially discriminating against customers than it is to admit every member of our society has a part in the systemic oppression of black communities.

With social media, it is easier than ever to see how racism exists nationwide when videos of incidents, including at the Philadelphia Starbucks, are readily available. When members of the public see evidence of racism, they must remember they’re viewing a single symptom of a widespread, centuries-long societal ill rather than an individual controversy affecting one person, place or business. They need to focus on the problem, starting with recognizing their own privilege.

If Starbucks wants to prove it is doing more than simply pandering, there are numerous organizations that provide resources to black communities to which the coffee chain can donate and several ways to improve inclusion, diversity and understanding of diverse identities as a mainstay in its corporate culture by making such training a regular occurrence in Starbucks stores.

Companies must be held accountable for perpetuating racial bias and should work diligently to right their wrongs, and the rest of society should do the same as well.