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Starbucks, at the Intersection of Race and Class in America

Starbucks, at the Intersection of Race and Class in America


Our photographer drove through parts of Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri before Starbucks closed its stores Tuesday, trying to capture the cultural force that the company has become.

Carolyn Gwydir, left, sat outside the Starbucks in the Delmar Loop area of St. Louis on Saturday with her two children. Ms. Gwydir said the coffee shop had served as a meeting point for her family, and she had been visiting it for at least seven years.

Photographs by Roger Kisby

When Starbucks shuts down across the United States, it’s hard not to take notice.

The company runs more than 8,000 stores around the country, with 175,000 workers helping to serve thousands cups of coffee a day.

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Outside a drive-through Starbucks location in Champaign, Ill., on Sunday.

But for part of Tuesday, Starbucks closed its stores in the United States to conduct bias training. The training was a response to the outcry that resulted from the arrest of two black men in one of the company’s Philadelphia stores. One of the men had asked to use the bathroom without having made a purchase, and when they later refused to leave, the police were called.

The training sessions were a reminder to many that when a big company serving people of diverse backgrounds tries to talk about race, the response can be fraught.

Before the nationwide shutdown, I spent two days driving through parts of Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri to capture how Starbucks has become a cultural force in the various communities it serves.

Driving in Bourbonnais, Ill. The village of fewer than 20,000 people has four places where you can buy Starbucks coffee, including one in a Target store.
Cordell Lewis, a manager at the Starbucks in Ferguson, Mo.

In parts of Missouri, Starbucks exists at the intersection of race and class divides. The company said it opened its first store in Ferguson in 2016 as part of an effort to help revitalize low- and medium-income communities around the country. Two years earlier, Ferguson had been thrust into the national spotlight after an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer.

Outside a Starbucks in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood on Sunday.

The chairman of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, likes to talk about the company’s coffee shops as “third places” — cultural meeting grounds that exist for people somewhere other than home and work.

The company says it wants its stores to be special places — warm and welcoming environments where customers can gather and connect.

The arrests in Philadelphia ruptured that feeling for some. There were protests around the country and calls for boycotts. The chief executive, Kevin Johnson, apologized, calling the situation reprehensible and vowing to bring change.

Places like the Delmar Loop, a popular entertainment district on the edge of St. Louis, can feel like a melting pot.

Nearby, you will find pristine homes populating gated communities. Elsewhere you can see the scars of race-related violence. In September, the University City suburb burst into protest after the acquittal of a white former police officer in the fatal shooting of a black man.

Joseph French, 34, who was inside the Delmar Loop Starbucks on Saturday, said he appreciated the shop’s customer service. “They’re good to me here,” he said.

Tim Wilkins, 67, a pastor at a local Lutheran church, was at another Starbucks in St. Louis. “Introverts come to work quietly,” he said. “Extroverts get their coffee and blast off into the universe.”

When thinking about race relations, he said the rule should be compassion first, especially in an urban setting like his.

Outside a Starbucks in Beloit, Wisc., on Sunday.



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