Does Starbucks Really Have Their #Race[Relations]Together?
By Meshell Sturgis
Ph.D. Student, Department of Communication
Remember the #RaceTogether Starbucks campaign in 2015? If not, what about the “waiting while black” arrest that was made in 2017 at a Starbucks in Philadelphia? Dr. Nneka Logan, a professor of Public Relations and Corporate Communication at Virginia Tech, has been following Starbucks’ communication with the public about race. In 2016, she published a case study of the Race Together Initiative, and in May of this year she presented at the Race and Media Conference, hosted by the Center for Communication, Difference, and Equity (CCDE). Her presentation focused on what she calls “Corporate Responsibility to Race.” For Dr. Logan, what’s noteworthy about the Starbucks campaign is the proactive “though imperfect, attempt to address the issue of racial inequity in the United States” (2016); the Race Together initiative was not directed at increasing profit, nor was it in response to a crisis.
With both public support and backlash, like protest signs saying “too little, too latte,” Dr. Logan points to the risk that the company made in promoting its Race Together Initiative. Just as corporations have “played an influential role in race relations since this nation’s beginnings,” it is hard to overlook the potential influence corporations might leverage around issues of race in this country (Logan, 2016). As Dr. Logan shared in her presentation, and in greater detail in a podcast interview, since 2015, Starbucks has successfully maintained public relations that are attentive to Critical Race Theory. The corporation’s response to the 2017 incident in a Philadelphia Starbucks, demonstrates Starbucks’ commitment to racial equity and social justice. They closed down hundreds of stores to implement implicit bias trainings, publicly apologized, and most importantly took responsibility. While the arrests reflect current racial tensions in society and individual implicit bias, it also reflects the influence and role of corporations in such social issues. How might the scene have played out had Starbucks instead refused responsibility? Starbucks isn’t totally off the hook. In fact, Dr. Logan states they “need to do more… [and] double-down on their commitment to racial justice” (podcast). But, compared to most Fortune 500 companies, including those who have histories of profiting from slavery in the United States, Starbucks is unique.
Microsoft, a much higher-profiled company in Washington State, collaborated with the CCDE for the Race and Media conference. Dr. Logan shared her thoughts on their involvement, stating, “this was a great example of how corporations can play a positive role in facilitating important and meaningful discussions about race… Microsoft’s contribution goes beyond mere philanthropy because it facilitated powerful dialogue, linkages and action on race, justice and equality…” Kudos to their team who participated in the conference! We hope you will continue to collaborate with the CCDE and we look forward to seeing how you implement your take-aways from the presentations.
Logan, N. (2016). The starbucks race together initiative: Analyzing a public relations campaign
with critical race theory. Public Relations Inquiry, 5(1), 93-113. 10.1177/2046147X15626969
Reality check. (2018, April 16). WURD Radio. Podcast retrieved from