Starbucks vows to fight racism in America

Amends: Starbucks has since offered to pay the university fees for the two men. © Getty

Is Starbucks showing America the way to end racism? Three weeks after two black men were arrested in one of its cafes, the company is starting a “multiphase” effort to stop bias in its tracks.

It was a video that stunned America. Two black men in handcuffs, in a Philadelphia Starbucks. “This is ridiculous,” a white customer can be heard saying. “What did they do?”

What they had done, it turned out, was arrive early to a business meeting and sit at one of the tables. When Rashon Nelson asked to use the bathroom, he was told it was for paying customers only. He sat back down. Two minutes later, the cafe’s manager called the police, saying the men were “refusing to make a purchase or leave”.

When the officers arrived, Nelson and his friend, Donte Robinson, were arrested. They spent hours behind bars before being released without charge.

But the damage was done. A video of the arrest went viral, and soon there were protests at Starbucks cafes across the country.

Now, Nelson and Robinson have settled a case against the city for $1 each, and a promise to invest $200,000 in a scheme to encourage entrepreneurial local high school students.

They have also received an undisclosed sum from Starbucks — and a personal apology from CEO Kevin Johnson, who described the incident as “reprehensible”.

Starbucks has meanwhile launched a “multiphase effort” to give anti-bias training to all 175,000 of its US employees. On May 29, 8,000 stores will be closed for the first phase of this plan.

The company is not saying that all of its employees are racist. It is drawing on the idea that all people have implicit or unintentional biases, thanks to years of conditioning. When a culture associates certain groups with one thing — such as black men with crime — we are more likely to make those same associations ourselves. This can lead people to change their behaviour towards those groups without even realising.

Anti-bias experts try to undo those associations, treating bias like a habit that can be broken. They teach people to notice when they are stereotyping somebody else and mentally replace that stereotype with something else. Such simple strategies can be surprisingly successful.

Too latte

Starbucks is leading the way, say some — including Starbucks itself. Rather than just apologising or ignoring the incident, it is embarking on a huge effort to change the way thousands of Americans see the world. Racism has plagued the country for too long, and it will only be solved if individuals work to challenge and undo their own prejudices.

“Starbucks is not the next Selma,” argued Robert L Woodson in the Wall Street Journal. There are “far more grievous problems” affecting black people in Philadelphia and elsewhere — such as dire poverty and high murder rates. Those problems, not a mix-up over bathrooms, should be the focus of anti-racism efforts.

You Decide

  1. Has Starbucks responded well to the arrest of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson?
  2. Is everyone racist?


  1. What unconscious biases do you think you have? As a class, discuss times when you have made an incorrect judgement about someone based on a stereotype, or a time when someone has made an incorrect judgement about you. Afterwards, write down three things you think people could do to change these prejudices.
  2. Create a timeline of race relations in America, starting with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Include as many significant events as you can think of. Do you think the Starbucks arrests deserve a place on this timeline?

Some People Say...

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognise, accept and celebrate those differences.”

Audre Lorde

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
On April 12, Nelson and Robinson said they arrived at Starbucks 10 minutes early to a business meeting which was scheduled for 4.45pm. The 911 records show that the manager, who is white, called at 4.37pm, just two minutes after they entered. They were arrested when the police arrived.
What do we not know?
How much money Starbucks has agreed to pay the two men in compensation for the incident, as this was a confidential settlement made to “allow both sides to move forward and continue to talk and explore means of preventing similar occurrences”, according to a joint statement. We also do not know whether anti-bias training actually works — some results are positive, others negative. (See the Word Watch.)

Word Watch

A psychological term for when behaviour is learned through repetition or observation. Put bluntly, if a society is racist then people who grow up in that society are more likely to learn racist attitudes.
Not all anti-bias training is successful. Sometimes, teaching people that everyone stereotypes others can lead to people stereotyping more. In this case, Starbucks has said it is consulting with experts from the NAACP and Equal Justice Initiative.
For example, the staff at STEM departments at the University of Wisconsin were given anti-bias training around gender. Over the next two years, the proportion of women hired rose from 32% to 47%.
A reference to a historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama in 1965.
Robert L Woodson
A former civil rights protester who is now known as a leading black conservative in America. He founded the Woodson Center, which works to “uplift neighborhoods” struggling with violence, drugs and poverty.
High murder rates
Last year, Philadelphia’s homicide rate was the highest since 2012.

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