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Lessons From Starbucks’ Imperfect Response to Systemic Racism

Everyday acts of systemic racism such as racial profiling, racial microaggressions and racial violence are a terrifying reality for racially and ethnically minoritized students, faculty and staff at predominately White institutions across the United States. As these occurrences continue, these institutions have attempted to address the violence and blatant racism through hiring diversity consultants, offering workshops and establishing multicultural affairs departments.

Yet, the insidious and blatant forms of racism remain intact. As Black women scholars who have been invited to serve as campus consultants around issues of racial diversity, we often grapple with this work, knowing that despite our efforts, racism and White supremacy are here to stay.

Dr. Lori Patton DavisDr. Lori Patton Davis

During our recent time at the American Educational Research Association Conference in New York City, we learned about the now-infamous Starbucks incident and our first reaction was, “Here we go again…” However, through further reflection and discussion, we arrived at a few conclusions regarding how Starbucks addressed the racial profiling and arrest of two Black men and what higher education leaders at predominately White institutions can learn in the aftermath. We share them below:

Responding with a sense of urgency

While it is not completely clear when the Starbucks Corporation or its CEO Kevin Johnson received word that two Black men were surveilled and racially profiled by the store manager and subsequently arrested on suspicion of trespassing in that Philadelphia Starbucks location, we are aware that within 48 hours of the incident, the Starbucks Corporation issued a formal apology on Twitter and a written and video statement from Johnson was released.

Dr. Chayla Haynes DavisonDr. Chayla Haynes Davison

This is three forms of communication within a truncated amount of time. Johnson expresses a personal apology and accepts full responsibility for the situation that unfolded. Moreover, Johnson does not downplay the situation. Instead, he condemns the local and corporate business policies and practices that made such a discriminatory and unfortunate outcome possible, as well as outlines the immediate next steps to addressing the root issue: racial profiling and discrimination.

Johnson also centers the lives and experiences of the men who were unjustly victimized. In short, Johnson did what we wish more institutional leaders would do, that is, respond with a sense of urgency that communicates more than a desire to maintain the institution’s reputation and respond to public outcry. More often than not, institutional leaders either don’t respond quickly enough, respond defensively when students protest, offer a half-hearted apology that infuriates rather than resonates, or simply don’t show up.

Within a week’s time following the incident, the public knew Starbucks’ stance and immediate plan of action with its Racial-Bias Training.

Remembering Black people can be innocent victims, too

Anti-Black rhetoric constructs Black men as “the aggressor” and Black women as “to blame” for any violence they encounter. Thus, their bodies – their motives their actions – are less likely to be interpreted by others, particularly White others, as noble, harmless or non-threatening. So, it was important that Johnson’s statement indicated that these two Black men posed no threat, violence or disruption and the decision of the store manager to engage police was unjustified. This perhaps influenced the Starbucks CEO and other members of the corporation to repeatedly refer to them as “gentlemen.”

The fact that these men were guilty of nothing that warranted police intervention was clear from the videotape. And thank goodness, there was a videotape because the anti-Blackness that is reinforced by systemic racism requires Black people to prove that the racism they experience is “real”. Still, present-day examples that ignited the #BlackLivesMatter movement make clear that videotape evidence of deadly force by white people, namely police, upon Black bodies is often imposed unjustly.

In an attempt to do whatever Starbucks can to make things right, Johnson stated that it was his priority to meet face to face with Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, the two victims, and offer a personal apology in his statements released April 14.  This is an important first step that should not be overlooked. By April 17, Johnson articulates in a video statement, that his role in this dialogue was to “listen and learn, with the objective of understanding how this could ever happen and to begin to take the steps necessary to make sure it never happens again.” But we know it will.

Institutional leaders like the Starbuck CEO need to hear the painful stories directly from the mouths of those who have been subjected to racial violence, stories about the significant amount of racial trauma that Black people cope with in battling everyday acts of systemic racism.

Charmaine Perry asserts that racial trauma or race-based stress comes from dealing with racial harassment, racial violence or institutional racism. It is often compared to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as the symptoms are similar with irritability, hypervigilance and depression. And like PTSD, Black people and other people of color can be triggered and relive racial trauma after witnessing race-based discrimination and violence of another person. Consider the multiplicative effect of racial trauma on the people of color who are among the 11 million who have seen the cellphone video, dubbed ‘waiting while Black’ documenting the Starbucks incident that landed two unarmed Black men in handcuffs.

Explicitly naming systemic racism

After taking accountability, Johnson made the following statement in his April 14 video: “Now, going through this, I am going to do everything I can to ensure it is fixed and never happens again. Whether that is changes to the policy, in the practice, additional store manager training, including training around unconscious bias, and we will address this.”

It is difficult to discern what exactly Johnson is referring to when using empty words such as “it” and “this.” He was given another opportunity just two days later to clarify what he meant. On April 16, Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts asked Johnson, “You say in your statement that Starbucks stands firmly against discrimination and racial profiling.  So do you believe that is what happened here?” Johnson offered no explicit response.

One might infer it was Johnson’s intent to call out and name that he believes the Starbucks incident is an illustration of how systemic racism enacts violence that is structural, interpersonal and intimate on Black bodies every day. But that is not what happened. Had Johnson given systemic racism a name, the act would suggest that he is not simply a nice White man but a woke White man who understands why the incident at Starbucks continues to happen to Black people and why the store manager’s decision to engage the police was not only unjustified but risky. Being woke encourages a heightened level of consciousness both locally and transnationally regarding societal ills and the need to unabashedly name and dismantle inequitable power structures and their disproportionately negative effects on minoritized peoples. Being woke engages us in the envisioning of futures characterized by freedom and emancipatory struggle.

Although the explicit naming of racism was not articulated by Johnson, perhaps the wokest person at Starbucks is their Facebook account rep. In responding to several customers’ comments about the “inconvenience” of the mandatory racial-bias training, with some describing the decision to close as a “waste of time,” the social media rep for Starbucks replies directly to each comment by naming systemic racism and explaining how Starbucks’ existing policies and practices maintain it.

In our own experiences on campuses, it is not uncommon for racial incidents to be swept under the rug as quickly as possible and later referenced as “the incident.” In this way, the historical lineage of racism, the pain of racial violence inflicted on victims and the racism which flows through the culture of the campus gets erased or treated as a thing of the past. It becomes unmarked, perpetrators are silently vindicated and those on campus comfortably and cautiously tiptoe around the issue instead of confronting it and calling it racism and White supremacy.

We wish more institutional leaders would, at minimum, acknowledge the shame associated with racist incidents and expand their vocabulary to make the words “racism” and “White supremacy” a regular part of explicitly naming actions and behaviors that result in racial violence and trauma.

Making White fragility the precursor to mandatory bias braining

Based on the timeline of events leading up to the arrest, the men entered the Starbucks at 4:35 p.m. Within two minutes, the store manager contacted the police and within five minutes of their call, the police were dispatched. Clearly, it took only two minutes for the store manager to calculate a troubling narrative about the men, prompting the call to the police. This same narrative likely resulted in the police officers arresting the men.

The narrative we speak of is simply the crime of being Black, which also means being disposable, threatening and rarely if ever given the benefit of the doubt. However, that narrative is simply a construction in the psyche of White, fragile people – yet, that same construction has material consequences for the Black men who were arrested. This phenomenon alone, White fragility and its material consequences on Black people and other minoritized groups, should be the focus of the Starbucks Racial-Bias Training curriculum. Any other effort would be futile and ineffective.

Although we applaud Starbucks for requiring bias training for its employees as a positive step, we know, just like most diversity consultants know, one day or afternoon of training is not and will never be enough. Yet, institutional leaders could still learn a thing or two. Imagine the possibility for more critical dialogues, if our institutions set aside multiple days to address racial violence, discrimination and injustices as an urgent matter specifically for White people, and followed that up with sustained efforts to advance racial justice in higher education and beyond. Few predominately White institutions have or would be willing to make such a bold move to proactively address enduring White supremacy, but this type of stance is necessary and long overdue.

In thinking about the bias training, kudos to Starbucks for getting external consultation and taking recommendations from the community, the NAACP and other thought leaders about how to handle the work ahead and develop a longstanding curriculum to share with others. Yet, it is not lost on us that the curriculum will be developed with guidance from several national and local experts confronting racial bias, including 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.

Our assessment is that there are not enough White people being engaged around this work. As higher education scholars, we know all too well that the burden of educating White people can also be read as an exploitation of labor placed on the backs of racially and ethnically minoritized people (a “tax” if you will), whether they are the chief diversity officer, the culture center director or the lone person of color in the room.

From our standpoint – and certainly not our intent to prevent any of these consultants from their rightful compensation – this is a prime opportunity to bring more conscious White people into the conversation to advise Starbucks. This is critical because White people are more likely to listen to and digest information from other White people. Tim Wise, Robin DiAngelo, Christine Sleeter, Joe Feagin, the founders of @nowhitenonsense, etc. should be on speed dial for Starbucks and the many institutional leaders grappling with racism on campus.

Even as we write this, we know that attending a diversity training, no matter how well designed, does little to make someone “less racist.” Even the wokest White people describe themselves as recovering racists, because White supremacy is a hellavu drug that requires constantly working your steps. Training may help individuals act less racist, but does not ensure disruption of racist thought. Training is useful, but far from a magic pill, especially when considering how racially and ethnically minoritized people often experience these trainings as traumatizing when racial wounds are ripped open, being expected to represent their race, witnessing the flow of White tears and the list goes on.

This is why Starbucks and predominantly White institutions need multiple formal and informal learning strategies to further individual’s critical and racial consciousness. These institutions can do this better for faculty, staff and students. It’s at least worth considering in concert with other strategic initiatives.

Dr. Chayla Haynes Davison is assistant professor of higher education administration at Texas A&M University. You can follow her on Twitter @ChaylaPhD. Dr. Lori Patton Davis is professor of higher education and student affairs at Indiana University and president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education. You can follow her on Twitter @LoriPattonDavis.

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