Starbucks & Social Justice

“The workers here are getting less than half a dollar a day.”
– from the documentary film, Black Gold

As the story of Starbucks manager Holly Hylton racial discrimination against two black men went viral this week, outrage followed and Starbucks announced it would close for a day of implicit bias training, which sounds like a good thing. To a trained eye, however:

Red flag #1: that word “implicit” is wrong, as this was a case of explicit bias, not unconscious bias. Still, implicit bias training should be a good thing regardless as most people could use that anyway, and maybe they will touch on explicit in the training.

Red flag #2: Social Justice activist Susanna Barkataki pointed out on social media:

Wait, why is #blacklivesmatter not asked and funded to run the Starbucks antiracism training?
Starbucks you need to do far, far better. I absolutely love Starbucks and I’m going to do my best to organize and support all boycotts until you make this right.  We are smart and powerful. We aren’t falling for hiring a non-black white run organization to train you not to discriminate against black people. We all will find a new favorite cup of coffee until you get this better. The ADL who got the I’m sure very profitable contract is not a black run nor a pro-black organization.
Trust me I appreciate any and all work against hate. But when we are dealing with anti-black racism it needs to be an organization doing the work to dismantle anti-blackness that does the education. Not to mention benefits from the money that should be going to black folks who are working towards a world where this these types of trainings aren’t necessary in the future. But to get us there we need those with privilege and power- like you and I to be willing to admit we were wrong to learn, be humble, listen, show up, and work to do better. And we need to ask and fund black people to do this. Thank you for listening”

(Full article on this topic, hat tip to Amy Tacner.)

For those advocating for a good, clean & fair food system for decades, boycotting Starbucks has always been a thing, right up there with boycotting Walmart.

  1. The coffee industry, in general, is incredibly exploitive worldwide and Starbucks (and those that shop there) are generally condoning unfair practices globally. (See Black Gold film trailer ).
  2. Starbucks has not used it’s purchasing power to help make a cleaner or fairer supply chain. Compared to how Whole Foods Market (pre-Amazon purchase) has helped their producers transition to organic and fair trade. Starbucks just has good branding and lighting with a cup full of toxic (have you read the ingredients?) exploitation.
  3. Starbucks rise coincided with the fall of indie coffee houses across the country, destroying millions of independents. Indie coffee houses are now clawing back from death again as a vital part of local living economies and those indie coffeehouses largely support fair trade organic coffee. But Starbucks sees this as a huge concern and have Indie’s as a group on their radar.

As far as social justice goes, the entire operation misses the boat. If everyone who is outraged by this explicit act of racism was able to connect to the systemic exploitation that affects black, brown and Asian folks around the globe and then SHIFTED THEIR PURCHASING POWER to indie’s that carry Fair Trade Certified coffee we might actually be able to send a signal that the systemic racism needs to end too. If indies can thrive on Fair Trade coffee, why can’t Starbucks?

Until Americans meaningfully reckon with the systems of slavery and exploitation they support with their purchases, we won’t move the needle very far. This is a teachable moment about the entire system we are participating in. If we want to end racism, we’ve got to stop enabling the systems that exploit non-white cultures the globe over.

Explicit racial acts are unpalatable to most people yet they participate in systemic racism every day because since it happens “away.” If we can somehow help make that connection right now to people who don’t even know what Fair Trade is, we could shift a lot of purchasing power in the direction of better across the board.


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