After Starbucks closed for a day for companywide racial bias training, many observers and researchers on race expressed guarded optimism that a corporation of Starbucks’ stature and prominence had taken such a stand, but it’s evident that much more will be needed to eliminate prejudice in the organization. Starbucks needs to better leverage this opportunity and commit to being an anti-racist, anti-bias corporation. And frankly, other American corporations and nonprofits should follow the same path.
Starbucks seems to understand that one day of training isn’t enough, with company officials saying this is only the start of a commitment toward creating a bias-free workplace.
In reality, it’s an opportunity to broaden the conversation about how Starbucks and other organizations can reassess their roles as a cultural phenomenon, and a leading indicator of social stratification in communities. In fact, perhaps the most immediate impact of the training is the ripple effect. Media outlets are revisiting the story, and other organizations, like MSNBC, are launching discussions on race.
But let’s address some long-term goals that Starbucks and other organizations can consider that can move the dial toward systemic change.
After the events of April 12 in Philadelphia, one often overlooked outcome was that the two black men arrested agreed not to file a lawsuit against police and instead asked for a $200,000 investment in young entrepreneurs in the city. (Starbucks also reached an agreement with the men that included “a confidential financial settlement.”) Their request addresses a much-needed concern for communities of color.
Cities often provide abatements and other incentives for corporations to open businesses, but fail to ensure that these same corporations commit to reinvesting in the communities where their stores reside. Corporations can ask internally whether they are hiring local residents at all levels — not simply at entry-level, low-wage positions, but also in managerial, white-collar roles. And community stakeholders — elected officials and activists — must monitor externally and hold them accountable.
Organizations can also assess diversity among their staffs. In 2017, for example, Starbucks hired Rosalind Brewer as chief operating officer and group president, the second in command behind CEO and President Kevin Johnson — incidentally, the position he held before becoming CEO. Brewer is the first African American to hold this position at Starbucks and has stated her desire to see greater diversity in the company (while noting that the board is 29 percent women and 36 percent people of color).
A 2015 article addressing another Starbucks race initiative noted that 16 percent of Starbucks executives are of color, while 40 percent of employees are of color. So, one obvious question is, what is Starbucks doing to expand access for employees to management and executive education opportunities? Are there pathways to leadership for these employees, and are Starbucks leaders actively recruiting and mentoring their racially and ethnically diverse partners toward these routes?
This is also an opportunity to reflect on Starbucks’ impact on urban communities. Some research points to correlations between the opening of Starbucks stores and higher real estate prices — the stores may in fact serve as “prox[ies] for gentrification.” This raises a critical point that Starbucks should be active in discussing.
Organizations such as Starbucks can ask themselves: Are there opportunities to partner with local businesses? Do we support local schools and civic organizations in the communities in which we are located — particularly those in economically depressed areas? Last, is there contextualization for staff members so that they understand the history of the communities where they reside? Framing the prior and existing businesses and economic development in these neighborhoods from an asset-based perspective is a critical aspect of being a positive and supportive presence in underresourced areas, rather than an unwelcome bellwether of gentrification.
As the flurry of media stories discuss Starbucks’ day of reflection on race and equity in addition to ABC’s decision to cancel “Roseanne,” we must hold all corporations and nonprofits to a higher standard over the long term. We must advocate for this form of self-reflection and action in the businesses we frequent and the organizations to which we belong every day.
Richard J. Reddick is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at The University of Texas at Austin, where he also holds courtesy appointments in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies, the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, and the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies. He is also assistant director of the Plan II Honors Program.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Fort Worth Star Telegram, Austin American Statesman, and the Abilene Reporter News.
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