It's an awful and all-too-familiar story--so familiar it has its own hashtag, #EatingOutWhileBlack. The Dobsons--five children aged 8 to 19, their parents, and their aunt--were returning home from celebrating their grandmother's birthday. Along the way, they stopped at a Subway store in Newnan, Georgia. It was still a long drive to their North Carolina home, so after they finished their food, the children's mother instructed each of them to use the bathroom before leaving.
If they had been a white family, perhaps this would have been the end of the story. But the Dobsons are African American and the Subway store employee, who'd been robbed in the past, got very nervous. She called 911. "I need somebody to come through here please, ASAP. Now. There's about eight people in a van, and they've been in the store for about an hour. They keep going back and forth to the bathrooms by my back door," she told the emergency operator. She also worried that they might be putting soda into water cups.
Huge household-name international fast-food chain. Absurd incident of racial profiling. This event had all the ingredients to become a viral scandal, as did the recent arrest of two black men for spending time at a Philadelphia Starbucks without ordering anything. Why didn't that happen this time? Because of very smart reactions by the local police, and by the owner of the Newnan Subway franchise.
First, the officer who arrived on the scene quickly sized up the situation and apologized to the Dobsons for disturbing them. That's the kind of intelligent response we don't always see from the police in racial profiling situations. At the Philadelphia Starbucks, the police arrested the two men for allegedly trespassing. In another incident, at Yale University, a white student called the police because a black student was napping in her own dorm's common room. No arrest was made, but the police questioned the black student at length. In both those cases, video of the interactions with police quickly went viral. This time, the police officer on the scene treated the Dobsons reasonably and respectfully, so there was no video to go viral.
Also, the franchise owner, Rosh Patel, reacted appropriately and very, very quickly. By the time a local TV station aired a story about the event that same evening, the employee in question had already been placed on administrative leave. Patel had also personally called the Dobsons to apologize, and sent this statement to the media:
I take this very seriously, and I am fully investigating. I have also used this opportunity to reiterate to my staff the importance of making everyone feel welcome.
The Dobsons say they have received messages of support from all over Georgia. And the Newnan Subway store has reportedly gotten some threats. But the incident has not turned into a nationwide media event, as it so easily could have.
There are a few lessons here for every leader. First, in this time of heightened tensions, bias and sensitivity training is a must for every employee, and especially everyone who interacts with the public. Second, when an incident of racial insensitivity does happen, reacting quickly, appropriately, and sensitively is your best defense. And starting a conversation with local law enforcement is a great idea as well. If they respond badly, none of your good work will matter.