Jacques: Starbucks doesn’t brew racism

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Starbucks is in the hot seat for how the manager at one store in Philadelphia handled a delicate situation last week. Race is at the heart of it, and that has made the story erupt nationally.

The store manager called police after two men (who are African-American) asked to use the coffee shop’s restroom while they were waiting on a friend. They hadn’t purchased anything yet. The manager felt they were loitering, asked them to leave, and when they refused, called police.

When the cops arrived, they arrested the pair for trespassing, slapping them in handcuffs. It was caught on video by shocked customers who believed the men were being unfairly singled out and mistreated.

There’s no question that this store manager overreacted and made the wrong decision, and quite likely did so based on the race of the two men. The same goes for police, who should have been able to defuse things without the arrest and handcuffs.

But this unfortunate story got me thinking: Is there still such a thing as an isolated incident?

After loud protests in Philadelphia and beyond in response to the incident, Starbucks took action, which was smart on its part. The company’s top leaders have gone on an apology tour, accepting the blame for what happened and promising to take a close look at the coffee giant’s culture.

It even announced this week that Starbucks will close all 8,000 of its U.S. stores for a day next month so 175,000 corporate and retail employees can undergo racial bias training. Starbucks has said the May training will get input from the likes of former Attorney General Eric Holder and Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

That strikes me as over the top. One employee’s bad decision doesn’t reflect on the thousands of other workers who are more focused on just making good coffee for whoever walks into their store.

Nor does it mean that Starbucks as a company is “anti-black,” as some protesters have claimed.

The Seattle-based retailer prides itself on its diversity and inclusion as well as its “green” emphasis on the environment. Some initiatives in the recent past include its 2015 “Race Together” campaign to get customers talking about race. Last year, Starbucks fought back against President Trump’s travel ban and immigration comments by pledging to hire 10,000 refugees.

But memories are short and good deeds have a shelf life. Instead of being given the benefit of the doubt, the company is wearing the racist tag.

The incident in Philadelphia was a mistaken call by one employee. But I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of Starbucks employees are not racist. I worked as a Starbucks barista many years ago, and I can attest that the employees for the most part are far to the progressive side of politics.

There seems to be an opportunistic element here. Instead of keeping things in proportion and judging an institution based on the whole picture, those who are constantly in search of racism inflate a single comment, a lone misstep, a rare exercise of misjudgment into evidence that America is rife with bigotry.

This refusal to offer the benefit of the doubt strikes me as inflaming the nation’s divides, rather than healing them.