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The Justice Report: Is Starbucks' apology for arrest of black customers enough?

Amrit Singh

 // Apr 16, 2018

This weekend, two young men were handcuffed and paraded out of a Starbucks in Philadelphia for being black, basically. You may have seen the clip that went viral: Cops were called when two young kids were waiting for a friend without having had made a purchase. (The friend shows up when the cops are arresting them.) The expression of resignation and familiarity that one of the men wears as the police escort him out for "trespassing" is as heartbreaking as it is telling: We are used to this scene. This is what happens when you're black, or brown, or whatever skin tone triggers the implicit bias of the person doing the "policing."

So let's recap all the dimensions.

  • The two men, who were waiting for a third man for a business meeting, made no sudden movements and did not raise their voices the entire time while at the Starbucks — not even when being wrongfully arrested. (Starbucks and the Philadelphia D.A. will press no charges.)
  • According to Philadelphia Police commissioner Richard Ross, the cops involved followed protocol perfectly. "These officers did nothing wrong, they did what they were supposed to do," said Ross.
  • Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney took issue with the coffee giant, saying the incident "appears to exemplify what racial discrimination looks like in 2018."
  • Many on social media are saying #BoycottStarbucks; others, like Philly-bred comedian Kevin Hart says "this is not a boycott @Starbucks situation, this is horrible management." Meanwhile, people have been in the streets, later staging a stand-in at the Philadelphia Starbucks in question.

Whether this is all a local management issue, or something more pervasive within the corporate culture of Starbucks, CEO Kevin Johnson knew he had a problem on his hands and immediately dove into apology mode. He made statements over the weekend, saying "the call to the police was wrong, you can and should expect more from us" and flew to Philadelphia to visit the Starbucks shop in question and meet with the community. Johnson went further, going on Good Morning America this morning to speak with Robyn Roberts, saying his employee's actions were "reprehensible and wrong." He also promised extensive Starbucks training around "unconscious bias," which is what he said went wrong here. And finally, he extended an invitation to meet in-person with the men who were wrongly arrested. (The men reportedly have agreed to a meeting.)

In real talk terms, this should all be CEO 101/intro-level crisis management stuff; if you're a CEO in Johnson's position, you have to do this. But in corporate terms, many CEOs in similar situations have fallen short of owning and apologizing for their employees' racist nonsense. So, good on Johnson for at least taking these steps.

And the big questions coming out of this incident are:

  • Did the police act properly?
  • How do we stop this from happening again at Starbucks (and also everywhere else on Earth)?
  • Is it fair to hold a corporation responsible for its local management's errors?
  • And did the Starbucks' CEO go far enough?

On the question of the police: As noted, Commissioner Ross feels his officers did everything right: The Starbucks manager called the police complaining that the two men in question were trespassing by loitering and not purchasing anything; the cops came and found this to be the case; they arrested the men. But this overlooks the idea that police are humans with discretion and not just the ability, but the civic need, to make informed decisions based on the circumstances. Put another way: Could the police have arrested these men? Yes. But SHOULD they have? This is an entirely different question, resting entirely on your personal bias. In other words: Maybe Starbucks' employees aren't the only ones in need of unconscious bias training.

On the question of how we stop this from happening: Man, America needs a long look in the mirror, long enough so we can see that America's face is far more diverse than the ones we're trying to police into existence and prosperity. Boycotts and social media chatter is good for raising the issue to the level of public discourse.

But on the question of holding corporate responsible for local management's indiscretions: It's true that sometimes you get a bad apple hanging from your corporate branches. Does this mean the whole tree is yielding strange fruit? Maybe not in the immediate moment. But if you let that rotten fruit hang without treating the infection, no matter how far from the roots, that infection will spread its way right into the heart of everyone who eats it, and the trunk of the tree itself. Put less metaphorically, and more financially: The free market is built upon inherent checks and balances that reward or penalize companies based on the ways in which it upholds the integrity of its mission statement. Kevin Johnson said that this Philadelphia incident contradicted Starbucks' core mission of creating a "warm and welcoming" environment. Holding him and his shareholders responsible is the only way to ensure that his mission is being accomplished.

And finally: Did Johnson's apology go far enough?

Well, this happened just today, at another Starbucks, DAYS AFTER THE PHILADELPHIA INCIDENT.

As a nation we have a lot of work to do. After these past few days, it's unclear if everyone is welcome to do it from their local Starbucks.

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