Even at Starbucks? A conversation grows about hidden racial bias.

Two black men were waiting for a friend, but not making a purchase, in one of the most overtly progressive corporations in the nation. Their arrest, shared widely on social media, puts fresh focus on the challenge of latent racism.

Mark Bryant/The Philadelphia Inquirer/AP
Black Lives Matter activist Asa Khalif (l.) stands inside a Starbucks in Philadelphia April 15 demanding the firing of the manager who had called police Thursday – a call that resulted in the arrest for trespassing of two black men who were waiting there for a third party. The arrests were captured on video and quickly gained traction on social media.

Videos of two black men leaving a Starbucks in handcuffs last week has confronted many Americans with one of the nation’s most troubling and divisive questions: How deep does racism still run?

Half a century after lunch counter sit-ins that cemented the civil rights movement, the similarities between the images then and those from a downtown Philadelphia Starbucks were jarring: police officers escorting two stone-faced black individuals from a storefront after they had insisted on equal treatment.

In this case, two black men were waiting for a friend, but not making a purchase, in one of the most overtly progressive corporations in the nation. Often with comfortable couches, electric outlets, and a do-your-work-here vibe, Starbuck’s green-trimmed coffeehouses were built to reflect its often-advertised values, including a stated commitment to racial diversity, an atmosphere of relaxed creativity, and an effort to provide its cadre of baristas with industry-leading benefits.

After all, this is the company that infamously asked its baristas to write #RaceTogether on coffee cups and initiate discussions on racial justice three years ago. And it has often advertised itself as a “Third place,” a coffeehouse that provides both the the convenience of an office and the comforts of home, along with free WiFi.

But the blowback to the videos of the arrest, one of them watched over 10 million times, is turning out to be a watershed moment, both for the company and those who say America’s history of race relations is still bogged down with hidden prejudices and privileges.

“The creative class talks about the value of diversity all the time while living in a not-very-diverse world, so Starbucks is almost a stage for that,” says Bryant Simon, author of “Everything But The Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks.” “We live in a moment now when we’ve come to understand that gestures toward diversity don’t eradicate the structural racism in society.”

In Starbucks’ case, he adds, it turns out that the company’s “exclusionary practices, like many in America, were really hidden.” Retail experts say the company's core demographic for its $4-a-cup coffees are middle- and upper-class white professionals.

In turn, Starbucks’ response – including plans to close all its stores one afternoon next month and conduct a massive, all-hands-on-deck training to address issues of race – reveals the growing difficulty many US corporations and individual citizens face when it comes to the well-worn cliches about diversity.

“This is just another example of how as a black person in America your very existence is questioned and your ability to move freely throughout the world is really policed,” says Evelyn Carter, a UCLA social psychologist who studies the impact of bias on culture.

There have been other racially charged incidents recently in IHOP and Applebee’s restaurants and a Chanel perfume store. And a second video has emerged involving Starbucks, showing a black patron in California being denied a bathroom code because he didn’t make a purchase. A white patron, however, was given the code, even though he, too, hadn’t bought anything.

Starbucks has announced a vigorous response. Chairman and founder Howard Schultz is meeting with Philadelphia clergy on Wednesday. CEO Kevin Johnson personally apologized to the men. The store manager has been fired. Plus the training in 8,000 company-owned stores.

“It would be easy for us to say that this was a one-employee situation, but I have to tell you, it’s time for us to, myself included, take personal responsibility here and do the best that we can to make sure we do everything we can,” Starbucks chief operating officer Rosalind Brewer, who is black, told NPR on Monday.

But calls from civil rights leaders asking Starbucks to look deeper at its hiring practices suggest the international coffee purveyor is facing a deeper conundrum: the difficulty of rooting out bias with just a few targeted training sessions.

And with a vibe and pricing structure that caters mostly to white creative types and professionals with money to spend, the company’s ballyhooed progressive values have boomeranged back, some observers say.  

Indeed, in some ways, Starbucks fell victim to its own messaging. Through its advertising, the company has placed itself at the center of other heated cultural debates, including gun-carry laws and gay marriage. And in 2015, amidst a slew of police killings of unarmed black men, it bought ads in major US papers asking “Shall We Overcome?” even while asking its baristas to engage its customers in “Race Together” conversations.

“That’s the complicated thing about Starbucks: Its racial diversity policy has always been aimed at its white audience, and that’s why this is such a crisis, right?” says Mr. Simon, a Temple University historian who has tracked the company’s place in culture for years.

“Starbucks is this postmodern company that doesn’t really sell a product as much as it is selling a kind of version of your best self,” he continues. “And that comes laden with a lot of values, and those values are eventually going to clash with other people.”

On Monday, protesters marched through the downtown Philadelphia Starbucks, with chants including one that ended, “Starbucks coffee is anti-black.” And since the incident last week, the hashtag #BoycottStarbucks has been trending widely on Twitter.

But researchers like Professor Carter, who is black, say that while biases throughout society are often ingrained and even unconscious, that does not mean that those views are immutable. And she’s been an enthusiastic Starbucks customer over the years, she says. While taking summer classes at Harvard years ago, she got the thrill of being a regular when the crew remembered her order as she came in the door.

“Do people become more aware of the prevalence of bias if they hear story after story?” says Carter. “Yes, sharing those instances do help open people’s eyes that this isn’t a one-off incident but a persistent pattern where blacks are treated as second-class citizens.” 

“And Starbucks reaction – to be embarrassed, to want to take action – is exactly right,” she continues. “It shows that this is a pervasive problem.”

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