It’s notable that both Facebook and Starbucks, two mega-giants of what has been called the new economy, have had public comeuppances within days of each other.
Last week, Mark Zuckerberg was called onto the congressional carpet to explain how his company compromised the privacy of millions of people and may have unwittingly distorted the last presidential election.
Starbucks’ woes are related to a single incident last week in Philadelphia, when two black men were arrested for not buying coffee, but the shock waves so far have proved massive, including protests, calls for a global boycott, and a public apology from the company’s CEO.
The scale of the missteps might appear to be different, but the potential fallout could be disastrous for two companies that have until now been seen as 21st century behemoths that share global impact and roots in both technology and social change.
Starbucks essentially serves as the cafeteria for the new economy; it would be nowhere, after all, without its WiFi signals.
Starbucks became a revolution not just for charging a premium price for coffee and giving an Italian name to its servers, but for blurring the lines between retail space and civic space. By encouraging people to park their laptops for hours on end for the price of a cup of coffee, it created new public spaces throughout the country and the world.
The two men arrested last week broke the rules of that space by not buying coffee. But Starbucks broke a more important rule: By demonizing two people based on their race, it left democracy out of the public space.
Starbucks has never been shy about touting its values, or its belief in corporate responsibility. It created a corporate social-responsibility department in 1999, has been outspoken on a range of issues, and in 2015 started an ill-fated “race together” movement in response to police shootings of black men.
If a company this “enlightened” can stumble as badly as this single store did when it called the police on two black men, the message is not so much that Starbucks is evil but that racism still has an unshakable and tragic hold in this country.
Finding racism, inadvertent or otherwise, in a self-described socially responsible company, speaks to how deeply ingrained hate, fear, and discrimination are, and to just how little we, as a country, have evolved from our racist, slaveholding past.
Even if the Starbucks incident comes down to one individual store manager making a mistake, we also have to wonder what prompted the kind of law enforcement response that led to at least six cops showing up to arrest the men (who, apparently knowing the drill, remained calm and compliant while being led away in handcuffs).
Police Commissioner Richard Ross needs to better explain how this deployment of force grew way out of proportion to the situation. It’s natural to wonder what kind of police response there would be for a similar complaint from a neighborhood that isn’t Rittenhouse Square.
Starbucks has responded quickly and communicated remorse and a commitment to social justice. What will it take for the rest of us to do the same?