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One of America’s best-known companies has a real plan to fight racial inequality

Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz addresses the "Race Together Program" during the Starbucks annual shareholders meeting March 18, 2015 in Seattle, Washington. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

Starbucks has come a long way from the much-maligned "#RaceTogether" campaign that was supposed to spark a conversation about race through its stores, but ended up just becoming an embarrassing moment for the coffee giant.

This week, the company announced two initiatives that that seek to address the economics of racial inequality in America.

On Thursday, Starbucks announced that it will open 15 stores in low-income neighborhoods --  including one in the heart of Ferguson's West Florissant neighborhood. That is, of course, the Missouri community where the death of Michael Brown, the black teen who was killed by a white police officer, first sparked local then nationwide protests about the treatment of black Americans by law enforcement.

Some of the other first new stores will be located in Milwaukee; Jamaica, Queens in New York; and Chicago's South Side.

“We want to be part of the solution in these communities and help create a sustainable future for those who may be looking for a second chance," Blair Taylor, chief community officer for Starbucks and chair of the Starbucks Foundation, said in a statement.

[Starbucks is rounding up employers to hire America’s “lost generation"]

The company also announced this week that it would take on the stubborn issue of youth unemployment, which among black youth is epidemic.

Taken together, the two initiatives are small but meaningful. They are also strongly symbolic.

Not much is known definitively about where Starbucks chooses to put its stores or why. The company says it has a "long history" of putting stores in "diverse neighborhoods."

And while that may be true, a Starbucks store moving into a neighborhood is also closely associated with gentrification. Stores are densely populated in well-heeled urban and suburban areas, thriving downtowns, and business districts.

And if an up-and-coming neighborhood lands a store -- through a selection process that Starbucks calls part art and part science -- it is akin to winning the bonanza. But some have also accused the company of hastening a process that drives low-income residents out of their homes through rising rent prices.

[The young and the disconnected: America’s youth unemployment problem]

Recently, executives at the real estate website Zillow took a look at data on Starbucks locations and economic data across the country. Specifically they looked at the impact Starbucks stores had on home prices.

The findings were somewhat surprising -- Starbucks stores didn't necessarily reflect a gentrification process already underway, they created it.

Zillow's Spencer Rascoff and Stan Humphries explain:

True, properties near Starbucks locations tend to start out more expensive. But as you can see, these properties appreciate at a faster rate than US housing on the whole. Interestingly, they’re also recovering much more quickly from the housing bust.
What does that look like in practice? Let’s look at the historical home value appreciation of areas that now are located within a quarter mile of a Starbucks. A home that is now near a Starbucks would have sold, on average, for $137,000. A home that is not near a Starbucks would have sold, on average, for $102,000.

Starbucks knows that its stores matter and that for low-income, minority neighborhoods, a Starbucks store is about more than just an additional 20-25 local jobs -- though those do matter too.

It would not be a stretch to assume that if Starbucks stores are a signal, it is one other businesses are likely to follow.

[Starbucks baristas: ‘Race together’ campaign never found its course]

When it comes to racial inequality, however, a major problem remains that too often, minority communities are economically blighted -- shut out of jobs and opportunity -- even when businesses come to town. It remains to be seen whether the presence of new stores is able to benefit these communities, without driving low-income residents out.

To that end, Starbucks added that it intends to "collaborate with local women and minority owned contractors and businesses in the design and development of these stores, and work with women and minority owned suppliers to bring locally-made food products to the stores."

Starbucks isn't going to resolve problems of systemic racism in America -- over policing of black communities, epidemic incarceration, and blatant discrimination in how economic resources are doled out  --  but this latest move is an acknowledgment that dealing with race will take more than fostering "conversation" through words on a coffee cup.

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