"We cannot deny that this is a race issue."
On April 12, two black men were arrested while waiting for their friend at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. Their crime? Waiting for a friend, apparently.
The incident, caught on film, shows the two men being placed in handcuffs by police officers while confused customers tried to ask what exactly they had done wrong. The incident sparked a lot of justifiable anger and resulted in an apology from both Starbucks, and the Philadelphia police chief, a few days later.
@Starbucks The police were called because these men hadn’t ordered anything. They were waiting for a friend to show… https://t.co/gQ6HFw3fYZ— Melissa DePino (@Melissa DePino) 1523567534
At NBC, writer Elon James White shared an "uncomfortable truth for white America" about the incident.
"While this incident went viral, it is only remarkable because of how unremarkable it actually is," he wrote, highlighting another Starbucks video from California showing a black man being denied access to a store's restroom, while a white man was allowed in without scrutiny.
People protesting at the Starbucks where the two men were arrested. Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images.
Starbucks announced plans to close all 8,000 of the company's corporate owned stores on May 29 for mandatory racial-bias training.
In a statement posted to Facebook, the company explained they were working with well-established civil rights advocates and anti-racism organizations to develop a curriculum for its 175,000 employees. The plan has gotten some majorly mixed reactions, ranging from people arguing that the Philadelphia location and police did nothing wrong, to those who think this is an important step in addressing the issue, to people who believe this is simply too little, too late.
Whether the training itself will be considered a success remains to be seen. Still, the company's responses on social media have an important lesson for us all.
A lot of the time, when a company finds itself in the midst of a public relations disaster, their social media teams will come up with a few canned statements to respond to criticism on social media. Starbucks took a different approach — and has been offering personal replies to dozens of people.
Responding to criticism arguing that the Philadelphia incident was just a few bad apples, the company replied, "Because systemic racism and bias is bigger than one partner, one store or one company. We are shutting our stores for this training because we recognize that we have the responsibility to be part of the solution."
Others lamented the thought of going without their coffee for an afternoon, saying that the company's response was overblown. To that, Starbucks owned up to its less than stellar history, writing, "There are countless examples of implicit bias resulting in discrimination against people of color, both inside and outside our stores," and explaining that they have a responsibility to act.
"There was no reason for the police to be called to our Philadelphia store," they wrote to another commenter.
Another commenter used this as an opportunity to highlight legitimate grievances people and communities of color might have with law enforcement. The company responded by saying there are plans to meet with Philadelphia government and law enforcement officials to ensure this doesn't happen again. While it's not a national solution, it is something.
When someone pointed out that it shouldn't have taken a viral video for the company to get serious about fighting racial bias, Starbucks responded that the program rolling out May 29 will become part of new employee onboarding moving forward.
"Maybe train your employees on how to deal with loitering in general and not make it a color issue?" wrote another commenter. The company responded, "We cannot deny this is a race issue, which is why we are implementing this training."
Generally speaking, people should avoid calling the police in all but the most extreme cases, and Starbucks made its position on that clear in one of the responses, writing, "While there are situations where a call to police is justified (such as violence or aggressive behavior), this was not one of them."
The company was rightly wary of accepting praise for doing something it should have been doing all along. "We hope this proves to be an impactful step — one of many we know we have to take."
Yes, the manager who called the police has been fired.
Racism and unconscious biases are very real, and we'd all benefit from taking a step back and examining our own.
If one good thing comes out of what happened in Philadelphia, it's the chance for those who are white — and can't possibly know what it's like to be made to feel unwelcome in public spaces or to have our existence treated as automatically criminal on the basis of our skin color — to see the "uncomfortable truth" James mentioned in his article. This isn't a one-off incident, and it's not limited to just Starbucks. This is an everyday reality for many people of color. It's on all of us to push for a better world and to work to be our best selves.
What happened to those two men should never happen again. It almost certainly will, but it shouldn't. Take a page out of the Starbucks social media team's playbook and recognize this is a cultural problem that we have a responsibility to address — and then hold yourself accountable for your actions.