Starbucks denies speculation that it ‘demoted’ ADL in its anti-bias training

A view of a Starbucks shop in Washington, D.C., April 17, 2018. The company announced that it will close more than 8,000 U.S. stores on May 29 to conduct “racial-bias education” following the arrest of two black men in one of its cafes. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Starbucks denied that it demoted the Anti-Defamation League from a lead role in its anti-bias training, saying it continues to view the Jewish group as a valuable partner in future training.

Reggie Borges, a spokesman for the coffee giant, spoke to JTA on Wednesday following speculation that left-wing criticism of the ADL’s role in the anti-bias training had led Starbucks to reduce its role.

“I can’t emphasize enough that they were not demoted,” Borges said. “The ADL remains a key component of our plans. Any implication they’ve been demoted just isn’t true in any way, shape or form.”

The anti-bias training is Starbucks’ response to the controversy surrounding the April 12 arrest of two black men at one of its Philadelphia franchises. On April 17, Starbucks announced that it was closing all 8,000 of its company-owned retail outlets in the U.S. on the afternoon of May 29 to conduct anti-racism training for its 175,000 employees.

In its initial announcement, Starbucks named the leaders of five civil rights groups who were to be involved in planning and monitoring the company’s efforts, including ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt; Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative; Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund;  Heather McGhee, president of Demos; and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

On April 25, Starbucks issued a second statement expanding on its plans. This time, the coffee company omitted Greenblatt’s name from the list of those to lead the May 29 effort, and indicated that it would be working with the ADL and several other groups on longer-term educational efforts. The others include The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, UnidosUS, Muslim Advocates and representatives of LGBTQ groups, religious organizations, people with disabilities and others, Starbucks said.

In between those two announcements, Tamika Mallory, a Women’s March co-founder who the ADL had slammed for publicly endorsing Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, tweeted that the ADL “is constantly attacking black and brown people.” Others on the left said the ADL was not an appropriate choice for anti-bias work, despite its decades of experience in the field, because it sponsors training programs in Israel for American law enforcement.

Borges said any change in ADL’s role was not a result of such criticism, but instead represented the natural evolution of the company’s plans to counter bias.

“As we started to work with the ADL and others, we realized we need to look at this as a multi-phase effort,” Borges told JTA. “It became clear that the 29th was just one moment in time, and there was a need for Starbucks to continue the journey beyond this day. … ADL’s expertise in anti-bias training was a natural fit in our phase beyond the 29th, and they will be key advisers in what we shape and develop.”

Greenblatt seemed to accept Starbucks’ decision, tweeting April 25: “Honored to be assisting @Starbucks in implementing #antibias education for all 175k US partners. This effort needs to be about creating lasting change. Starbucks is committed for long haul and ADL will be there every step of the way.”

He continued: “Humbled at prospect of working w/partners & pioneers @NAACP_LDF @eji_org @Demos_Org @civilrightsorg @WeAreUnidosUS @MuslimAdvocates etc. And yet we know, first & foremost, this is an issue of race. And so we are ready to listen, learn &share our expertise+experience where we can.”

Borges said Greenblatt “was named to begin with because he is a key adviser for us in this plan. Their expertise is across bias training and the ADL is one of the key groups that understand this. We wanted to get guidance and insight from them and then came with this multi-phase approach. It’s not a demotion. Any suggestion otherwise is just not true.”

Asked to comment Wednesday, ADL spokesman Todd Gutnick said, “When Starbucks asked for assistance​, we agreed to help. As to whether Starbucks may or may not now want to utilize our expertise, you should ask them.”

On Wednesday, Starbucks reached a settlement with Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, the two men who were arrested April 12 in a Philadelphia store. They were waiting for a business partner at the cafe when one asked to used the bathroom. The men were told the bathroom was only for paying customers. Shortly after, Robinson and Nelson were arrested by city police and charged later that night with trespassing.

Their agreement includes a confidential financial settlement along with an offer to pay for the two men to complete undergraduate college degrees through a program Starbucks offers its employees. The men also will provide feedback to Holder, who is consulting with Starbucks on its long-term diversity and anti-bias training efforts.