Starbucks To Close 8,000 Stores For Employee Racial-Bias Training

Apr 17, 2018
Originally published on April 18, 2018 1:43 am
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Starbucks will close thousands of its U.S. stores on May 29 for training sessions on how to prevent racial bias. Today's announcement is the latest fallout from an incident last week at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. Two African-American men were arrested after an employee called the police. The Philadelphia Police released the audio of the 911 call this afternoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR: Philadelphia Police operator 363 - how may I help you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hi. I have two gentlemen in my cafe that are refusing to make a purchase or leave. I'm at the Starbucks at 18th and Spruce.

CHANG: Police ended up leading the men out in handcuffs, and a video of their arrest went viral. NPR's Joel Rose is in Philadelphia and joins us now. Hi, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So what exactly are these training sessions Starbucks is planning?

ROSE: So like you said, the company is going to shut down 8,000 of its company-owned stores on the afternoon of May 29 for racial bias training for nearly 175,000 employees. That's both the retail store employees and the people who work in its corporate offices. And Starbucks says the training will be designed by some pretty big names, former Attorney General Eric Holder among them as well as people from the NAACP, the ADL. And it's designed to address, in the company's - according to what the company says, implicit bias, to promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination and to make sure that everybody in a Starbucks store feels, quote, "safe and welcome."

CHANG: Can you walk us through how the company has reacted since the video of the arrest went viral up until now?

ROSE: Well, CEO Kevin Johnson has pretty much been on a nonstop apology tour since that - the video broke. He's appeared in interviews on television. He flew to Philadelphia. He met with the mayor here. Johnson also met personally with the two men who were arrested, and he's acknowledged pretty widely that what happened was a mistake. He called it reprehensible. Johnson says it's not who we are, and it's not who we're going to be.

CHANG: What's been some of the early reaction you've seen to Starbucks' announcement on the training sessions that they're planning?

ROSE: Well, it's getting some good marks so far from at least one marketing professor here in Philadelphia. I talked to him. His name is Americus Reed. He teaches at the Wharton School, where he studies brands and social identity. And Reed thinks this incident definitely does not look good for Starbucks. But in terms of the response, he says the company has done a pretty good job of signaling that it does care about the experiences of African-American customers.

AMERICUS REED: I think that they have demonstrated a kind of higher management leadership style that would say they are aware of the issues and want to actually be doing something about the issues. So, you know, yeah, we can beat them up if there are moments of implementation where things fail. But again, I'm very hesitant to say, OK, there are systematic problems going on in all of Starbucks.

ROSE: Reed says Starbucks is presenting pretty much a textbook response to this kind of PR crisis. One, you try to show empathy with those who were affected. Two, you show that you're taking action. And three, you try to control the narrative, which seems to be what they're doing here.

CHANG: What about the two men who were arrested last week? Have they said anything publicly?

ROSE: They've said very little so far. Their lawyer, Stewart Cohen, held a press conference today in Philadelphia. He read a joint statement from the men and Starbucks' CEO, Kevin Johnson. Here's a clip from Cohen's news conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

STEWART COHEN: Mr. Johnson apologized on behalf of Starbucks, and the conversation continues today about how this painful incident can become a vehicle for positive social change.

ROSE: But Cohen really did not take any questions, and he didn't really answer a lot of the questions about his clients, including most obviously their names. So there's a lot we really still don't know about their side of the story.

CHANG: That's NPR's Joel Rose. Thank you, Joel.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.