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Be Skeptically Optimistic About a Commitment to Racial Equity

Only time will tell if what Starbucks is doing will make a differnce.

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Color me surprised. That was my first reaction when I learned that Kevin Johnson, CEO of America’s most popular coffee brand Starbucks, decided to close more than half of their U.S. stores to conduct racial-bias training for their staff following the arrest of two Black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks, who were simply sitting in the store waiting for a friend.

In the past, when people of color were treated with indignity and disdain for simply existing, most responses from company leaders involve an approach of firing an employee, a feeble apology, and business as usual once the event fades from the headlines. Johnson, however, is taking a different approach.

This pronouncement, along with his apology, meetings with community leaders, and enlisting the guidance of civil rights leaders such as former Attorney General Eric Holder and Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP, ensures that this incident, and the spectre of racial bias will remain in the public’s mind beyond a few days.

Johnson and Starbucks are making an important statement about racial discrimination with this announcement. As Melissa DePino, the white woman patron whose video of the incident went viral stated, “I had been there the day before and sat there for an hour and didn’t order anything… this would never happen to me… This happens every day to black and brown people in this country.”

Indeed, Black men navigate a world where they are often assumed to be a threat, regardless of their behavior. The presence of armed police can result in escalation, and even death. Every Black parent has had to have “the talk” with their children, a conversation about the dangers that await them because some people might assume them to be a threat. Black men and boys, in particular, are all too familiar with the question scholar W. E. B. DuBois asked over a century ago: “How does it feel to be a problem?”

In many ways, the response from Starbucks falls in line with previous progressive corporate policy announcements. Just last month, the company announced after a 10-year effort, they achieved 100 percent pay equity for employees by race and gender in the U.S., and committed to the same goal globally. Starbucks does deserve some credit for tackling issues of equity. But for people of color, there may be a note of cynicism among this optimism.

So-called “diversity trainings” have become somewhat the stuff of parody, and there’s a body of evidence that suggests one-off sessions do not have any effect. However, sustained engagement on issues of equity and inclusion, activities that place participants in the situations that oppressed people experience (what I call “addressing the empathy gap”), and setting goals—much like the one Starbucks envisioned a decade ago regarding pay equity—are some evidence-based best practices.

But perhaps the positive aspect of the Starbucks pronouncement is that it sets a precedent for other business and organizations to follow. There is a numbing sense of deja-vu about incidents such as these; we know more are coming. Even Johnson stated, “this is not limited to Starbucks.”

Retailers, law offices, educational administrative offices, and our government should commit to halting business as usual the next time a racially discriminatory act is committed by an official. Many of us will be watching to see how the May 29 training — and what Starbucks commits to beyond this single day —  sets in motion. Perhaps the 40 million customers craving a drink that week can similarly commit to antiracist action as well.

Richard J. Reddick is an associate professor in Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin, where he also holds courtesy appointments in African and African Diaspora Studies, the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, and the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies.

A version of this op-ed appeared in Fortune.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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