As Starbucks prepares to shut down 8,000 company-owned stores on Tuesday for a mass employee teaching session on combating racial bias, the president of one of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights groups told ABC News that the crucial test will be after the coffee giant concludes its training.
Marc Morial, president of the Urban League, said the company cannot expect one afternoon of teaching to root out the type of implicit bias that prompted the wrongful arrest of two African-American men at a downtown Philadelphia Starbucks store earlier this year and caused its CEO to apologize to the men in person.
“I think Starbucks should be applauded for what I would call one of the most ambitious efforts to confront an incident of this type that I’ve seen any company do in recent times,” Morial told ABC News. “However, it’s important to realize that one day of diversity training will not solve implicit and explicit racism either at a company or in America. The test is going to be what is the go-forward strategy by the company to institutionalize which kind of training or professional development to deal with the broader issues.”
On April 12, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, two 23-year-old black entrepreneurs and longtime friends, were waiting to meet a potential business partner at a Starbucks in downtown Philadelphia when a white manager asked them whether they wanted to order anything. They declined and told her they were just there for a quick meeting.
Nelson said he immediately asked to use the restroom when they walked in but was informed it was for paying customers only. So the pair sat at a table and waited for the person with whom they were scheduled to meet.
Within two minutes after entering the store, the manager called 911 and police officers arrested the men for trespassing and paraded them out of the store in handcuffs when they refused requests to leave.
A customer posted a cellphone video on Twitter of the men being arrested, sparking national outrage, protests at the Philadelphia Starbucks and calls for a boycott against the company.
Within 24 hours, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson called the incident “reprehensible” and apologized to the men. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross also issued a public apology and all charges against the men were dropped.
“We will learn from our mistakes and reaffirm our commitment to creating a safe and welcoming environment for every customer,” Howard Schultz , the executive chairman of Starbucks, said in a statement.
On April 17, Starbucks announced it would close more than 8,000 company-owned stores across the nation for one afternoon to train 170,000 employees on how to avoid “racial bias.”
Starbucks says the training will run up to four hours on Tuesday beginning at 1 p.m. or 2 p.m. Employees will gather at their individual stores and go over a curriculum created with input from experts such as Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative; and Heather McGhee, president of the public policy organization Demos.
The company last week released a preview of the video workers will watch during the training. It features Academy Award-winning rapper Common, who will guide them through the lesson, the company said.
During the training, employees will go through a workbook and given instruction on identifying implicit and explicit bias and how to control it. Employees are also expected to hold group discussions and share personal experiences on discrimination.
The company has already instituted what it calls a “Third Place Policy” in which customers are “welcome to use Starbucks spaces, including our restrooms, cafes and patios, regardless of whether they make a purchase.”
“Our hope is that these learning sessions and discussion will make a difference within and beyond our stores,” Rossann Williams, Starbucks executive vice president of U.S. retail, told employees in a note the company made public on May 23.
Following the training session, the curriculum will be available to the public.
“May 29 isn’t a solution, it’s a first step,” Williams said. “By educating ourselves on understanding bias and how it affects our lives and the lives of the people we encounter and serve, we renew our commitment to making the third place welcoming and safe for everyone.”
Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans, noted that African-Americans have endured similar incidents at other retail chains since the incident at the Philadelphia Starbucks.
Earlier this month, police were called on three black teens wrongly accused of shoplifting at a Nordstrom Rack in St. Louis, Missouri, prompting the company’s president Geevy Thomas to meet with the three young men and their parents and apologize. In another incident this month, police were called on an African-American customer at a Hobby Lobby store near Birmingham, Alabama, because he vaguely resembled a suspect in a check-cashing scheme.
“Implicit and explicit bias is a reality in 21st century America,” Morial told ABC News. “It’s just a reality and to deny it is to deny the obvious because now with social media people are often getting caught red-handed.”
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