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Starbucks incident is a reminder that ‘liberal’ companies with ‘woke’ leaders also have racism issues

Two black men waiting at a Starbucks in downtown Philadelphia were arrested on April 12. Starbucks released a statement of apology on April 14. (Video: Khadijah Hassan)

When two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks after an employee called the police, calls for a boycott spread through social media and elevated conversations about implicit bias against people of color.

Starbucks's executive chairman, Howard Schultz, said he was “embarrassed” and “ashamed” of how the employee handled the incident.

“I think you have to say in looking at the tape that she demonstrated her own level of unconscious bias,” he told Gayle King on CBS “This Morning.” “And in looking at the tape, you ask yourself whether that was racial profiling.”

Schultz added: “There's no doubt in mind that the reason [the police] were called was because they were African American. I'm embarrassed by that, I'm ashamed of that. That's not who Starbucks is. That's not who we've been, and that's not who we're going to be.”

Schultz, whose company has been known for its inclusion and political correctness (to the point of occasional controversy), has received praise in the past for speaking out against racism. After the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, when President Trump blamed “both sides” for violence, Schultz said that elected officials were not using “their voice with due force and eloquence to elevate the ideal of equality.”

As police brutality against black people became a growing concern, he created the Open Forum at the Starbucks Support center in Seattle for his employees to share their own experiences with racism.

“I’ve watched with a heavy heart as tragic events and unrest have unfolded across America, from Ferguson, Missouri, to New York City to Oakland, California,” he told Time magazine. “I’m deeply saddened by what I have seen, and all too aware of the ripple effect.”

But the Philadelphia incident raises questions about how deeply Schultz's sensitivity on racial discrimination seeped into the company.

Starbucks announced Tuesday that it will close more than 8,000 stores for an afternoon next month and is offering “racial-bias education” training for nearly 175,000 employees next month.

It plans to bring in political and advocacy heavyweights to help develop the curriculum, including Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative; Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; former U.S. attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr.; Heather McGhee, president of policy center Demos; and Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League.

But serious questions remain for those deeply concerned with Starbucks's response to the incident.

“Do we seriously think that Starbucks is going to pull off thousands of substantive racial bias trainings simultaneously on one day based on a curriculum that hasn’t been developed yet?” Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson tweeted.

“I like the idea of trainings. And I think they can be beneficial. But the gesture is meaningless if the delivery mechanism is flawed. Then, this just becomes another symbol of impact and not actually impact.”

Some on the right were quick to note how Schultz's company was on the receiving end of the liberal scorn.

Partisanship aside, the incident does draw attention to an issue that some on the left are not often vocal about: Companies that champion liberal values are not free of the racial bias and insensitivity. Even companies headquartered in deeply blue Seattle with tuition assistance programs and headed with leaders who speak out against entry bans from Muslim countries are capable of harboring racism.

Schultz said the training is just a start in Starbucks's effort to deal with potential racism within the company. But the incident also provides an opportunity for the left to open the door to see how well they do at policing bigotry within their own tribe.