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The Solution for Starbucks in Five Easy Steps

By Lori L. Tharps

Photo credit: Darien Law

This blog post appeared originally on My American MeltingPot.

On April 12, two Black men were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia for sitting at a table and waiting for their business associate to arrive. Initially, the police said the two men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, were arrested because they were trespassing since they hadn’t ordered anything, but after a thorough investigation, it was discovered that Nelson and Robinson had only been at the chain coffee shop for two minutes before police were called. In other words, the two men were arrested for “sitting while Black.” To break it down another way, the white manager of the Starbucks, who has been identified as Holly Hylton, picked up the phone and called in her white privilege to destroy the lives of two innocent Black men.

And then, for reasons I cannot understand, the police arrived and instead of assessing the situation—that two men were waiting for their friend to arrive, which is what people do in coffee shops—and realizing that Hylton should have been arrested for wasting their time, they arrested Nelson and Robinson instead. I blame Hylton for this mess. I blame the police officers on duty that day for this mess. But the CEO of Starbucks, Kevin Johnson, was quick to take the blame on himself. He also decided it was his responsibility to “fix” the problem. Johnson’s proposed solution is to close 8,000 US based Starbucks locations on May 29, 2018, for implicit bias training for the entire staff.

I admire the initiative Johnson and his team have taken. And I think it’s great they’re making the phrase “implicit bias” a household phrase, but I don’t have any illusions that an afternoon of training is going to fix anything. I mean, we’ve been working for nearly 400 years cultivating our racism to be hearty and strong. It’s not just going to shrivel up and die because Kevin Johnson wants it to. And Starbucks can’t cure our whole broken society anyway, but I think the company can make a difference.

If Starbucks really wants to change the culture inside of its coffee shops, management has to do more than hold a workshop on a single afternoon. And lucky for Kevin Johnson, I have taken it upon myself to come up with five simple changes they can implement that will really send a strong message that all people are welcome at Starbucks. And as an added bonus, if Starbucks follows my plan, it will also help their bottom line.

1. Implement a Zero Tolerance Policy for Racial Profiling: This is how you put your money where your mouth is. If any manager or staff person pulls a “Holly Hylton,” they will be immediately fired. Put it in the contract, on the walls of the cafe, on the bathroom mirror next to the “Please wash your hands” signs. Make the policy clear. Make it public and enforce it without fear.

2. Give Back and Give Black: In order to show the Black community that you are truly remorseful for what happened on April 12 and to make that day meaningful in a positive instead of a negative way, reclaim April 12. From now on, April 12 should officially be known as Free Black Coffee Day, a day when Black people can get a free cup of coffee from Starbucks.

3. Racists Need Not Apply: Just as most major companies make applicants take a drug test, Starbucks should now make all potential applicants take the implicit bias test. If they score too high, meaning they show super racist tendencies, they will not be allowed to work at Starbucks. The test already exists, so it’s just a matter of including it in the application process.

3.5: Following the drug test analogy, Starbucks should periodically make employees take random implicit bias tests just in case. Managers should have a sense of just how strong the biases are amongst their employees and then be equipped to do something about it, anything from firing people to holding staff workshops.

4. Diversify Your Staff: It kind of goes without saying that more people of color in management positions helps reduce the amount of bias incidents like the one that just occurred. Diversity works. It’s not just for show.

5. Let Us Help You Help Us: What goes better together than books and coffee? Nothing! Starbucks has already started selling a few books in some of their shops, so this isn’t a big ask, but it could make a big difference. Starbucks should start stocking a curated collection of books by Black authors about Black life and culture that will help white people understand and appreciate Blackness on a higher level, and will help Black people feel like they are in a space that honors their identity. Some titles to consider: Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness by Rebecca Walker; Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America (duh, you knew I was going to say that); How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston; When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele. This is just a start, but you get the idea. For many White people who don’t have any Black friends, Starbucks might be the only place where they would encounter a book about a Black person. Come on, Starbucks. This is your chance to do more than just serve overpriced coffee. (And this is the part that helps your bottom line too).

And there you have it. While I know I should be paid the big bucks for helping Mr. Johnson “fix” his ginormous problem, I’d just be happy to see these changes adopted. 


About the Author 

Lori L. TharpsLori L. Tharps is an associate professor of journalism at Temple University and the coauthor of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in AmericaKinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain, and Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America’s Diverse Families. Her writing has also appeared in the New York TimesWashington Post, and Glamour and Essence magazines. She lives in Philadelphia with her family. Follow her on Twitter at @LoriTharps and visit her website.