Starbucks’ decision to close stores for racial-bias training shows company’s ‘commitment’ to the issue, attorney says

By Carrie Bradon | May 10, 2018

PHILADELPHIA — Starbuck’s decision to close 8,000 U.S.-based stores for an afternoon to give its employees so-called racial-bias training after two African-American men were arrested at one of its Philadelphia locations while waiting for a friend, demonstrates the coffee giant’s “commitment” to addressing the issue, according to Lori Armstrong Halber, an attorney at Fisher & Phillips LLP.

"I'm not saying this cynically, but it makes a statement that, 'We take this seriously and are willing to forego the revenue we would otherwise earn and we think it's important enough that we have everyone paying attention to the same thing at the same time,'" she told the Cook County Record. "I think it demonstrates a commitment on their behalf, though it's only one step in a process."

Halber, a partner at the firm's office in Philadelphia, focuses her practice on representing employers on civil rights and labor relations issues. 

The nationwide training comes in response to an incident that occurred in April at a Philadelphia Starbucks. Two African-American men entered the coffee shop and asked to use the bathroom before ordering anything. The store’s employees asked the men to leave, but they allegedly refused.  

Lori Armstrong Halber   Fisher Phillps

The manager then called the police, who arrested the two men for trespassing. The men were eventually released after Starbucks decided not to press charges.

Video of the arrests made headlines across the country and sparked protests in Philadelphia. Protestors descended upon the store, chanting "Starbucks is anti-black."

In response, Kevin Johnson, the CEO of Starbucks, issued a public apology and announced that 8,000 of its U.S.-based locations would shut its doors on the afternoon of May 29 so that its 175,000 employees can undergo "racial-bias training."

"I've spent the last few days in Philadelphia with my leadership team listening to the community, learning what we did wrong and the steps we need to take to fix it," Johnson said in a statement. "While this is not limited to Starbucks, we're committed to being a part of the solution. Closing our stores for racial-bias training is just one step in a journey that requires dedication from every level of our company and partnerships in our local communities."

The men later reached a settlement with city of Philadelphia for $1 and a $200,000 pledge to support a program for young entrepreneurs, and purportedly also accepted a settlement with Starbucks for an undisclosed sum and a pledge to fund the men's college education through the coffee chain's partnership with Arizona State University.

Though some have been skeptical of Starbucks' motivation for closing the stores, Armstrong Halber said its motivation - whether for damage control or because the company believes it is the right thing to do, or both - will eventually come to light.

 "They are in a bit of a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' circumstance at this point,” she said. “This happened. It happened at one of their stores. It was appalling and shouldn't have happened... If they're doing it for optics... I think we'll know eventually because if it is a one-time deal, that will suggest that they did it to make a statement, but they weren't serious about following up on that."

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