Every couple of weeks I meet my best friend at a Starbucks midway between our homes. Sometimes I am a little early and get there before my friend. In that case, I stake out the comfy chairs in the corner, use the ladies’ room, and read my book. I usually don’t order until my friend shows up. That way I don’t finish my snack before she has a chance to start hers. It feels friendly to wait and eat together. No one at Starbucks has ever bugged me about this.
That wasn’t the case for two black men in a similar situation at a Philadelphia Starbucks. They were waiting for a friend when the barista asked them to order something or leave. They did neither. All too quickly she called the police, who handcuffed them and arrested them. Other customers were appalled. Some videoed the encounter.
Starbucks is now forced to clean up a mess. A staff member seriously overreacted to a minor situation with two men, apparently because of the men’s race. After all, the guys were planning to buy something, they just needed a few minutes. The video of the arrest went viral and the Philadelphia store has been picketed.
In the past Starbucks has attempted to be part of the solution to racial prejudice and discrimination. They hire people of all ethnicities and racial backgrounds and they have tried to foster communication among staff and customers about racial divides. The coffee shops have a reputation for being a good place to work and welcoming of all their customers.
The firm’s CEO has apologized to the men repeatedly, including at an in-person meeting. In addition, Starbucks has agreed to review their customer service policies to prevent further incidents. Finally, on May 29th, the company will close all its stores for several hours in order to train all their employees about the dangers of bias and the importance of treating customers of all backgrounds fairly.
It’s a good response: a sincere personal apology followed by some real efforts to make positive change. Other companies that make similar mistakes would do well to follow their example. Closing the stores for training, which will be expensive, shows that the company is willing to put their money where their mouth is.
Racial discrimination is a sin because it involves bearing false witness against our neighbor. God loves us regardless of race or ethnicity. Discrimination says that there are some people who are more valuable than others—and some who can be treated with less regard. Racial discrimination steals everything from dignity to financial stability from its victims. There have been murders in the name of racial superiority. All of this is sinful. We honor God’s creation when we honor all of God’s children.
We, as Christians, believe in repentance and forgiveness. A Starbucks employee made a grievous error, even a sinful error. She no longer has her job. The company, by making apologies in public and in private has demonstrated repentance. They are working to prevent the error from happening again. I hope that customers of all backgrounds recognize this and forgive the company for its treatment of the two men. I hope the men accept the apologies and meet again at their local store for lattes and treats. I hope we can be a better nation for watching this drama play out and considering the nature of racial bias. And I am going to continue to meet my friend at our usual spot.