Starbucks shuts 8,000 US stores for racial bias training

New York (AFP) –


Starbucks is closing more than 8,000 stores across the United States Tuesday to conduct employee training on racial bias, a closely watched exercise that spotlights lingering problems of discrimination nationwide.

The move, which affects 175,000 employees, follows the April 12 arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks, an incident sparking outrage, protests and anguished soul-searching about racial tensions that have deteriorated during the Donald Trump presidency.

"We realize that four hours of training is not going to solve racial inequity in America or anyone coming into our stores who may have a problem," Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz told CNN.

"But we have to start the conversation."

As a result frappuccino and doubleshot-on-ice lovers need to shop elsewhere starting at 2:00 pm (1800 GMT) during a session that the coffee giant says is designed to make Starbucks "a place where all people feel welcome."

The early closing means "our team can reconnect with our mission and share ideas about how to make Starbucks even more welcoming," says typed notices taped to the front of stores earmarked for closure.

The coffee giant says the session is the first step in a long-term process that will integrate further trainings and will take place around the world. The company has 25,000 coffee shops in 70 countries.

Starbucks is refusing to grant media access to the training sessions, but says it will include taped messages from Schultz and CEO Kevin Johnson, as well as message from Common, the rapper and activist.

Employees will watch a film from documentary maker Stanley Nelson on the history of African Americans, and discuss in small groups their experience of racial discrimination.

The curriculum, to made available at a later date, was drawn up in consultation with US president Barack Obama's former attorney general Eric Holder and civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, among others.

- Millions in lost sales -

Estimated to cost Starbucks $12-14 million in lost sales, the exercise has been cautiously welcomed by black officials and activists, and criticized by others as virtue signalling.

Not everyone is convinced much will change as a result.

The Starbucks arrest was not alone. A slew of recent examples of racial discrimination have gone viral on social networks. A student called the police in May when a black graduate student at Yale University fell asleep in a common room.

In May, a 22-year-old black man was choked by police at a Waffle House in North Carolina after taking his sister to prom, the fourth incident at outlets of the restaurant to attract national attention in less than two weeks.

Then there are instances of police brutality toward, and killings of, black male suspects, also often captured by witnesses armed with smart phones, that in recent years have spawned protests.

Other large companies have adopted racial bias training with less fanfare. Target introduced its first unconscious bias sessions in 2017, which it says are being rolled out across the company.

American Airlines announced last year that it would train 120,000 employees after the civil rights group NAACP warned against "a pattern of disturbing incidents" reported by African-American passengers specific to the company.

Starbucks announced its own training on April 17 as it battled to contain outrage over the arrest of two young black men in a Philadelphia store.

After the pair arrived, one of them asked to use the bathroom but was told it was for paying customers only. They then sat down to wait for a third person before ordering drinks. Only the manager called police.

A video that went viral showed uniformed officers questioning then handcuffing the two men, who put up no resistance, while a white client repeatedly asks an officer, "What'd they do? What'd they do?"

Starbucks swiftly apologized and reached a financial settlement with them. The city of Philadelphia agreed to endow a $200,000 fund for young entrepreneurs.