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Open Letter to Starbucks in the Aftermath of the Viral Video

Monday, June 4, 2018  

Open Letter to Starbucks in the Aftermath of the Viral Video of the Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson’s Arrest

M.O.B.B. United for Social Change, Inc. (MUSC) is gravely concerned about the treatment and safety of Black men and boys who patronize Starbucks stores


On April 12, 2018, in the 5th largest city in the United States, two young Black entrepreneurs entered a Starbucks in a popular Philadelphia neighborhood to meet a business associate. On the surface, there is nothing unusual about this scenario. For most of us, this is typical professional behavior. In fact, many people around the country have engaged in similar behavior --- plan to meet a friend or business associate at a nearby Starbucks. General etiquette dictates waiting for all meeting attendees to arrive before ordering and possibly using the bathroom, including washing your hands, prior to ordering and/or eating. On this day, for Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, these typical actions resulted in an arrest by the Philadelphia Police Department and a confused public wondering whether one of our Black boys and men would be the next victim of “Waiting while Black”. For the more than 180,000 moms represented in our coalition of moms, this recent incident adds to our concern for the welfare of our sons --- Black boys and men --- and their ability to do normal activities in public.


We Acknowledge Starbucks’ Swift Response

Within a week after this incident, a number of definitive actions were taken by the company. We commend Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson and COO Rosalind Brewer, who is a mom of a young Black man, for putting faces to the leadership of this large, public company. They traveled to Philadelphia and conducted interviews and meetings with multiple stakeholders involved in this incident. We also commend Starbucks for:


  1. Making multiple apologies and the renouncements of the arrests

  2. Firing that location’s Starbucks Store Manager (although this seemed to eventually occur due to pressure, protest, and public outcry)

  3. Creating a consistent no-purchase bathroom policy for U.S. company-owned stores

  4. Engaging in mediation to reach a confidential financial settlement with Mr. Robinson and Mr. Nelson and creating an opportunity for their higher education and mentoring

  5. Announcing an afternoon of Implicit Bias training for employees of U.S. company-owned stores


On May 29, 2018, Implicit Bias training occurred for the employees of the U.S. company-operated stores. According to the preview of the Implicit Bias curriculum, the training lasted for 3-4 hours and the Starbucks stores were closed during that time. This is a positive first step to address “Retail Racism,” a term describing what occurred on April 12th.


A Great Start, but Not Enough

Mr. Johnson and Ms. Brewer, MUSC remains gravely concerned that the short-term corrective actions fail to address structural and cultural issues contributing to this incident.


Yes, we are aware that in March 2018, Starbucks reported 100% gender and racial pay equity, which is a noteworthy achievement. However, there is scant available information for the buying public regarding your diversity and inclusion initiatives. As a company that attempted the “Race Together” initiative 3 years ago and recently announced pay equity, this recent incident of “Waiting while Black” contradicts your policies and highlights that your professed values aren’t always reflected in your practices.


Starbucks’ values, beliefs, and principles are well-detailed in its business plan and in the public domain. For example, Starbucks seems to value community, warm interactions between  baristas and customers, and an atmosphere described as the “Third Place” where one can relax when not at home or at work. Here is the dilemma --- our trust has been broken. Concrete, measurable, and proactive initiatives are needed to restore our confidence, as moms, that meeting a business associate at any Starbucks is unlikely to result in an arrest and sitting in a jail cell for several hours. We demand:


  • Transparency --- More detailed information, including policies, expectations, performance / measurements, and accountability up and down / internal and external to Starbucks, needs to be readily available to the buying public. We need descriptions of Starbucks diversity programs and policies just like your employees and shareholders. In addition, Starbucks should provide information about who its strategic community partners are and how diversity and inclusion initiatives are advanced.


  • Parity in Policies --- Updated and continuous training and clear, enforceable non-discrimination policies need to apply to all employees and licensees, including employees working in corporate, company-owned stores, and licensed stores. We learned that, in the past, Starbucks’ implicit bias training had been given only to employees at corporate and not for the public-facing retail employees. Making training, policies, and expectations required outright or made as a condition of licensing demonstrates total commitment to a consistent customer experience. Optional standards and policies results in inconsistent execution, evidenced by a sole Starbucks Store Manager having the discretion to call local police for two Black entrepreneurs doing what others were doing at the time --- sitting in Starbucks without a purchase.


  • Target Audience and Locations --- The restaurant industry is considered a diverse industry. With the focus on diversity and inclusion, Starbucks needs a target audience and store locations that reflects diversity. Based on available information, Starbucks’ customers are predominantly White and middle income - high income people. Starbucks should have a diverse workforce at all levels, including employee advancement from retail stores to corporate. If expanding Starbucks into minority communities is important, there should be definitive initiatives, including how Starbucks plans to become accessible to more minority communities. One of the first Starbucks in a minority community opened in 2016 in Ferguson, Missouri.


  • Measuring Performance --- Company and individual employee performance metrics are critical to monitoring and measuring effectiveness of Starbucks’ diversity efforts. This includes rewards and recognition to reinforce the importance of the diversity and inclusion initiative. Starbucks also needs diversity and inclusion benchmarks to determine current and future progress.


Without these answers, our lingering questions remain: Will our Black boys and men feel welcomed in any retail outlet with the Starbucks name? And will our Black boys and men receive treatment and feel safe like any other valued Starbucks’ customer?


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