Black leaders waiting to see if Starbucks changes

Will nationwide racial bias trainings for Starbucks employees undo the damage the company’s reputation has suffered in recent months? That remains to be seen, as the black community waits to see if the coffee conglomerate’s companywide “racial bias” trainings on Tuesday represent a real cultural shift for the company or just more “lip service,” experts said.

“I haven’t been in a Starbucks since this happened,” said Paula T. Edgar, Esq., founder and CEO of New York-based PGE LLC, a speaking, executive coaching and diversity consulting firm. She’s also president of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association, the largest black bar association in New York state. “I, as a consumer, want to hold companies that I give money to accountable. I wasn’t going to go back until after this, to see whether it was a lot of lip service.”

Starbucks came under fire globally due to the April 12 arrest in a Rittenhouse Starbucks of two black men, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson. A manager, who later left the company, called police on them for sitting in the café while not ordering anything.

On May 29, black business owners held a “#CoffeeWhileBlack” roundtable discussion, organized by Red Bay Coffee at Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in East Kensington, about ending “retail racism” and the importance of supporting black businesses.

“The most beautiful thing that happened after Starbucks wasn’t people saying ‘Boycott Starbucks. It was saying, ‘We ain’t gotta boycott Starbucks, just go to Amalgam … you can walk in Amalgam, they won’t call the police on you, you can be around black folk, you can have that black joy,” Marc Lamont Hill, owner of Uncle Bobbie’s Books & Coffee in Germantown, said during the discussion. “To me, the response to white people who say, ‘Oh we don’t want you in our stuff,’ isn’t to say, ‘We’re going to protest you until you want us in your stuff.’ Get your own damn stuff, and we have our damn stuff, so just use it.”

Nelson and Robinson quickly settled a legal action against the city of Philadelphia with a city agreement to allocate $200,000 in funds to a new School District program for young entrepreneurs. They settled with Starbucks for a confidential financial settlement, an agreement that the company would bring them on to advise the company on diversity matters, and financial aid to complete college. Among the company’s actions in apology was the closing of 8,000 Starbucks locations in the U.S. for “racial bias training.” Starbucks has also changed its policy on bathroom usage to allow nonpaying customers to use the restroom facilities.

“This is only a start,” Edgar said. “There needs to be not just a training, but they also need to have policies that are inclusive, that speak to equity, diversity and inclusion, so it’s not just a training, but it’s the culture of the organization that has shifted.”

While the Philadelphia incident drove many African-American customers to boycott of the Seattle-based, international coffee mega-chain, Edgar maintained that the companywide training could be a step in the right direction.

“If they have done this right, the people who are attending will be more empathetic,” Edgar said. “I believe that is the key to building bridges, understanding despite the color differences and other differences we have that are external, if we can understand we have experiences that are similar hopefully the training, if done right, can spark that kind of conversation.”

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