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At Morehouse, Starbucks executives seem unable to understand the burden of institutional racism

To some students, the dialogue with the Seattle coffee powerhouse felt like a missed opportunity

ATLANTA — The timing couldn’t be better.

Just over three weeks after two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks for sitting without ordering anything, Morehouse College hosted a town hall May 3 featuring the company’s executive chairman, Howard Schultz, and chief operating officer Rosalind Brewer. The town hall, which had been two months in the making, gave the opportunity for both students and faculty of the Atlanta University Center to voice their opinions and concerns.

The topic of race, of course, heavily dominated the conversation, with the executives repeatedly decrying the actions of the Philadelphia manager. They also took responsibility for what Brewer called a “failure of leadership” while recognizing the unique opportunity afforded to them in this teachable moment.

“We at Starbucks,” said Schultz, “have a unique opportunity to elevate the national conversation about this in ways that we could not elevate it with ‘Race Together.’ ”

Still, for many students at the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center, the dialogue felt incomplete. The conversation began rather promisingly, with Schultz admitting to not having the answers to “navigate through this age of anger and rage and the intensity of racial divide.” Yet, by the time the question-and-answer portion began, not only had the word “racism” not yet been used — replaced by buzzwords rooted in comfortability, such as “racial bias” and “unconscious bias” — but only few concrete solutions had been presented. This caught many by surprise, including Morehouse senior and Student Government Association vice president John Cooper.

“One thing I can’t help but notice is they shy away from the word ‘racism’ throughout conversations on the stage, conversations on news, throughout conversations everywhere, especially from corporations,” said Cooper. “And I’m only saying this because though you have racial bias training — which I don’t really believe you can train somebody to be racially biased, though you can educate them on the racism — because the difference between racism and prejudice is that prejudice is more interpersonal but racism is where we start talking about institutional matters, and that’s where we see the institutional ills of capitalism tend to affect black people more specifically.”

Kamren Rollins, just like Cooper, took issue with the verbiage used as well as the conversation’s lack of reconciliation. Rollins, who served as Morehouse’s 86th SGA president, couldn’t believe Brewer described the manager as having exercised “poor judgment.”

“When you look at discriminatory decisions that are most often made against black people and that involve the police officers, it’s not just poor judgment,” said Rollins. “In many cases, it can be a death sentence. To say that it was poor judgment, that’s putting this situation in a very small box without giving much contextual or historical background on this subject, and I think that’s problematic.”

Statements like these, however, according to Morehouse associate provost David Rice, were at the crux of making this event effective. Rice, who moderated the town hall meeting, wanted to give students the opportunity “to be seen and heard” as well as push the executives into a state of discomfort.

“I think the event was successful because of the opportunity for a good, healthy number of students to ask reasoned, thoughtful questions,” said Rice, “and my hope is that those reasoned and thoughtful questions will inform next steps. I’m not just talking the next finite step of their closing shop for half a day on May 29th but next steps in terms of execution, in terms of sustaining and in terms of innovation around racism in the workplace and beyond.”

This day of training, according to Brewer, will be only the first step in what she called a “total overhaul” in policy and guidelines. Still, with no concrete solutions being presented, one could only speculate on what will exactly take place on May 29 and beyond.

At the end of the day, it all came down to Brewer and Schultz’s inability to properly use the sacred space they inhabited. Rollins, who acknowledged the recent nature of the incident, offered his critique on what they should’ve done:

“Maybe start some type of committee to extend an olive branch so that if you have some ideas, if you have some tangible ways of fixing this and some suggestions, or partnering with professors,” said Rollins. “Here are professors at the institution that I’m sure can figure out ways or have, at least, some ideas so that we don’t just have a dialogue, because dialogue is not enough.”

C. Isaiah Smalls, II is a Rhoden Fellow and a graduate of Morehouse College from Lansing, Michigan. He studied Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies. He was Editor-in-Chief of The Maroon Tiger.