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Starbucks said yesterday that it will close all of its company-owned stores in the US during the afternoon of May 29 in order to conduct racial bias education programs for some 175,000 employees.

The move comes after the company has become embroiled in a racial incident in Philadelphia, where an employee called the police and asked them to arrest two African-American men who were waiting in the store for a friend; the employee accused them of loitering, but the impression among other customers was that they were being targeted because they were black. The situation has been exacerbated by social media, where video of the incident and considerable outrage has only ramped up the pressure on Starbucks.

"I've spent the last few days in Philadelphia with my leadership team listening to the community, learning what we did wrong and the steps we need to take to fix it," Kevin Johnson, CEO of Starbucks, said in a statement Tuesday. "While this is not limited to Starbucks, we're committed to being a part of the solution. Closing our stores for racial bias training is just one step in a journey that requires dedication from every level of our company and partnerships in our local communities.”

CNBC reports that “Starbucks will be working with Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative; Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; Heather McGhee, president of Demos; former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; and Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League to create this program. Once the company has completed this training at its company-owned locations it will make it available to its licensed partners.”

In its story, the New York Times reports that “the decision to shut all its domestic stores and provide training underscores the damage done to Starbucks’s reputation for being a socially responsible company, one that sells fair-trade coffee and promotes its stores as a meeting place. In 2015, the company was widely mocked for instructing employees to write ‘Race Together’ on its coffee cups.”
KC's View:
There is an irony to the fact that just a few years ago Starbucks got a lot of legitimate criticism for what seemed like a ham-fisted attempt to talk about racial issues. But if the attempt was ill-considered, the motivations were positive - the company wanted to address what it saw as a serious social ill. And now, the company finds itself on the other side of the issue, seen as part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

I think that Starbucks is approaching this the right way. Johnson has met with the men who were victimized, and the planned closure of the stores isn’t just about education. It is a statement.

I do think it is important to remember that this problem has been exposed because of the acts of a single employee (who apparently no longer is employed by Starbucks). There are others in the system, no doubt, who would’ve made the same mistake. And plenty of others who never would’ve called the cops.

Even as Starbucks does what it needs to do to address the issue, it is important to remember that this does not seem to be a company where racist attitudes are typical.

And, as Starbucks does what it needs to do to address the issue, it is important for every retailer to remember how one employee’s actions can swing perceptions and create problems. And to take note of what Starbucks is doing as a potential template when/if it happens to them.