Earlier this week, and first reported by BuzzFeed, the company turned down a request from baristas and other employees who wanted to show their support for the BLM movement. In a memo to its 250,000-member workforce, diversity officer Zing Shaw said, “There are agitators who misconstrue the fundamental principles of the Black Lives Matter movement — and in certain circumstances, intentionally repurpose them to amplify divisiveness.”
The decision sparked backlash on social media, including calls to boycott the company, and came just days after Starbucks had issued a “Black Lives Matter” statement of solidarity and committed $1 million to racial justice groups as protests broke out across the country following the death of George Floyd, a black man, in police custody.
On Friday, in a posting signed by Shaw, chief operating officer Roz Brewer and executive vice president Rossann Williams, the company said it is producing T-shirts with “Black Lives Matter” and other slogans for staff in the United States and Canada to “demonstrate our allyship and show we stand together in unity.” Employees, which the company refers to as “partners,” will have the option to wear them while working.
A company spokeswoman declined to say what exactly prompted the reversal — whether it was two days of social media calls for boycotts against the coffee chain or the current unrest in Seattle, the company’s home base and where protests have led to an activist takeover of a four-block, police-free autonomous zone.
Hailey Glick, who has worked as a Starbucks barista in Raleigh, N.C., since September, said she learned of the initial denial of BLM attire through an unofficial employee Facebook group. She said she initially thought the company was simply applying its official dress code policy, which prohibits personal accessories that advocate for a political, religious or personal issue — until her co-workers pointed out that the company sends employees shirts, cups and other merchandise to wear while on the clock during Pride Month.
“If we can stand up for LGBTQ rights, why can’t we stand up for black lives and people of color?” she said.
“I was very pleased with the reversal of the decision, and I think it’s the right move,” she said. “The only thing that I think makes me hesitate and probably makes the company hesitate too is how and where we draw the line.”
Bryant Simon, a historian at Temple University who wrote a book about Starbucks and American culture in 2009, said the company’s initial position was a “particular Starbucks dance.” The reversal, he said, came as a surprise.
“Lots of mass companies with a really big audience don’t want to have a public political statement and alienate their audience,” he said. “They can’t be Ben & Jerry’s. They’re just too big of a company for that. Their audience is too big, their investments are too big, their stores are in too many places for them to make a statement as strong as Ben & Jerry’s did.” The ice cream maker is known for its political stances and made a forceful statement about its support for Black Lives Matter.
What is tricky about Starbucks, Simon said, is that it markets itself as a “third place” for customers (after home and work) without embracing the political discussion that comes with public spheres. It’s not just about the coffee.
“A kind of political presence has always been part of Starbucks proposition, the idea that they could make a difference in the world,” he said. “You’re buying some kind of identity, and that identity has a politics to it, but that’s something that is kind of a slippery slope when you’re a mass company.”
In April 2018, the high-profile arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia coffee shop prompted the company to close more than 8,000 stores to conduct anti-bias training.
Christina Chang, a diversity and equity consultant in Seattle, said she often uses that case in her anti-bias workshops with predominantly white groups as an example of how institutionalized racism shows up in day-to-day life.
“In the midst of everything of that’s happened, they are still so flat-footed,” she said. “How is that possible? The reason it’s possible is that at the end of the day, you still don’t have diversity at the top. You still don’t have people of color with different experiences who will sit down with them and say, ‘Hey that’s not cool.'”
Starbucks has taken a $3 billion revenue hit since the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping across the United States in March, forcing the company to temporarily shutter half of its 8,000 company-owned U.S. stores for nearly two months.
Glick said during that time, Starbucks sent employees surveys about how their communities were affected by the pandemic and what local organizations were doing to address those needs, which resulted in company donations. She said she is expecting to receive a similar survey in response to racial injustice protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.
But Chang isn’t hopeful that the company culture will change until its board, leadership and store management reflects the racial and gender diversity of the country.
“The only way it’s every going to change is if we actually have representation at the top,” she said. “Not tokenism, not, “Oh we hired a chief diversity officer, so we’re done.”