Starbucks closes stores nationwide for anti-bias training

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Starbucks on Tuesday afternoon closed more than 8,000 stores to give its employees company-wide training in avoiding bias, in a public effort to make amends for an embarrassing racial incident.

“Our hope is that these learning sessions and discussions will make a difference within and beyond our stores,” Starbucks Executive Vice President Rossann Williams said in a note to partners about the training sessions.

Starbucks expected 175,000 employees to undergo the training, which focused on recognizing racial bias. But roughly 7,000 licensed stores, in locations such as grocery stores or airports, remained open. Starbucks said it was making the training materials available to those locations as well.

{mosads}The closing could cost Starbucks as much as $12 million in profits, by some estimates.

In Washington, at 2:30 p.m. employees at a Starbucks at 9th and O streets NW encouraged customers to finish their drinks and leave the store as they prepared for their session.

In an open letter to customers on Tuesday morning, Starbucks Executive Chairman Howard Schultz said the company aspired “to be a place where everyone feels welcome.”

“Sometimes, however, we fall short, disappointing ourselves and all of you,” he added.

Schultz was referring to an incident in April when two African-American men were handcuffed and removed from a Philadelphia Starbucks, where they were waiting for a friend. The scene was recorded in a cellphone video which went viral.

The incident put Starbucks on the front lines of a national discussion about race.

Starbucks quickly apologized to customers for the incident and took steps to ensure that such incidents would not happen again by offering company-wide training in fighting bias.

Schultz also addressed the nation’s racial tensions in an interview with CNN, in which he said that some of President Trump’s rhetoric was making the problem worse.

“I would say on a personal level, [Trump’s rhetoric] probably has given license to people to feel as if they can emulate and copy the kind of behavior and language that comes out of this administration,” he said. But Schultz also cautioned that the nation’s divide was a problem far beyond one administration.

It’s not the first time the company has looked to address racial issues. In 2015, Schultz helped launch a campaign called Race Together, in which he encouraged baristas and customers to discuss race. But that effort was widely panned and abandoned quickly after critics questioned if it was the best approach to a serious and complicated issue.

Tuesday’s effort at sensitivity training, though, was partly overshadowed by another racial controversy, this time involving comedian Roseanne Barr and ABC.

On Tuesday, ABC canceled the wildly successful reboot of “Roseanne” after the show’s star wrote a racist tweet about former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett.

“Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj,” Barr tweeted. She later apologized and deleted the tweet.

Some Starbucks employees praised their company’s decision to address racism and expressed optimism that it would have a positive impact.

“I think that it’s important, because … certain things … you do notice that people do,” said Morgan Mason, a barista at the O Street Washington Starbucks.

“I think it’s important to address the issue,” she added.

Mulu Gebiu, 42, an Ethiopian immigrant who’s been living in Washington for nearly 20 years, said he didn’t mind having to pack up his work and leave the coffee shop early.

“It’s just another reminder, so this is good that Starbucks is doing it,” he said.

Starbucks worked in association with representatives of the NAACP and equal rights group Demos on the training sessions.

Schultz has said he was “embarrassed” and “ashamed” by the arrests of 23-year-olds Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson at the Philadelphia location. The company agreed to pay an undisclosed amount and offer tuition-free help for college degrees through an online program Starbucks has for its own employees.

Robinson and Nelson also accepted a symbolic, $1 compensation from the city of Philadelphia, alongside a promise from city officials to create a $200,000 young entrepreneurs program.

“We thought long and hard about it, and we feel like this is the best way to see that change that we want to see,” Robinson said at the time.

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