A near tearful Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson told millions in a series of major network TV interviews that he was deeply hurt and found “reprehensible” the action at one of the company’s more than 8,000 locations.
The action was the arrest of two black men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. The men were arrested after the manager called the police under the pretense that they were loitering and refused to leave.
The arrest was captured on tape and went viral. It ignited mass protests, denunciations of Starbucks by civil rights leaders, black activists and many in the press. It was a public relations disaster for Starbucks.
But Johnson’s heartfelt admission of the problem was more than standard PR fluff and a media charm tour. He could have simply done what a lot of corporations, personalities, politicians and a parade of closet bigots have done over the years when they’ve been caught red-handed with their racism.
It usually comes after someone makes a racially loaded slip, dig or wisecrack about blacks. They duck, dodge, hedge, claim they were misquoted, flat out deny or issue a weak-kneed, half-baked apology, and then move one.
Major corporations, though, ever sensitive to the bottom line and public howls when some ding-bat employee, manager or higher-up harangues, harasses or cans a black employee on video, madly scramble to clean things up and make the embarrassment go away. The way that’s done is to fire or suspend the offender, issue a flowery statement swearing that they are “committed to equal opportunity and diversity and have zero tolerance for racial bias.”
Officials pat themselves on the back for dealing with the problem, the media dutifully reports their statement and everyone walks away happy. Until the next time it happens. Then the all-too-familiar template for dealing with a racial bigot is trotted out again.
That’s only the tip of the iceberg. In recent years, some of America’s corporate giants — Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Abercrombie & Fitch, General Electric, Southern California Edison and Dennys to name only a few — have been dumped on the legal hot seat with massive racial discrimination lawsuits.
The charges against them by now are so familiar they can almost be mailed in. Blacks are paid less, not promoted, fired or suspended more often than whites, harassed and hectored on the job, or with restaurant chains, many black patrons shout they are treated worse than kitchen help when they show up for a lunch or dinner.
Starbucks by no means was exempt from any of this. It was slapped with a lawsuit by a dozen deaf patrons at its New York outlets in 2013. They claimed they were mocked, ridiculed, refused service and in a couple of cases police were summoned. However, Starbucks gave a hint then that it didn’t stop at the usual pro-forma, “we deplore discrimination” statement.
It noted that it did have an American Sign Language training and a “creating a deaf-friendly environment” course for employees. That put teeth into its effort to solve an embarrassing problem.
Now fast forward to the national embarrassment for Starbucks of having two young black men hauled out of an outlet in heavily black Philadelphia in handcuffs and then having the tape of it blow up with more than 10 million views.
Then watch as the complaints against the manager who called the cops piled up against her of other prior bigoted behavior toward black employees and customers.
So, yes, Johnson, quickly rushed to Philadelphia to do swift damage control by vowing to make radical changes in employee training, community outreach and more funding for minority community projects. He capped that with a meeting with, and a public apology, to the two men, and the announcement to close all Starbucks nationwide for a day for ramped up employee and management diversity and racial sensitivity training.
It is a big, sweeping and unprecedented corporate reaction to the blatant racial profiling of the black men. It is more than that, too.
This is almost certainly the first time in American history that a major corporation shut down almost its entire operation for a day, at the cost of tens of millions in revenue, in response to blatant racism. While some blacks took the usual shots at Starbucks for acting only to save face and cover itself, this was silly, disingenuous and badly missed a bigger point.
The company’s action provides a long-awaited template for how to decisively confront racism and the racist stereotypes that damage so many. Make no mistake, other corporate biggies took note of what Starbucks did.
In fact, calls, were publicly made for the under-fire Facebook to emulate the Starbucks action on diversity in its little empire.
Starbucks got it right and for the right reason and in the right way. And for that I loudly applaud it.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is “Why Black Lives Do Matter” (Middle Passage Press). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.