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Why Aren’t Black Americans More Prominent in the Coffee Industry?

Written by Phyllis Johnson for Roast Magazine

Research shows that Black Americans are less likely than other ethnic groups in the United States to select coffee as a beverage of choice. Yet coffee’s history links major contributions not only to Africa but the diaspora around the globe. Ethiopia is praised as the birthplace of coffee, and for giving us some of the most prized coffees in the world. African enslavement was the original source of labor for coffee’s production in Brazil, the Caribbean and the West Indies, and farmers of African descent continue to play a key role in its production. So how is it that Black Americans are only loosely connected to this long-standing historical continuum in coffee, finding themselves underrepresented as consumers as well as professionals in the coffee industry? And how can we as an industry bridge this gap?

Racism, inequality and the effects of slavery are human diseases that have left crowded rooms filled with little gender or racial diversity. The coffee industry must not shy away from these difficult subjects. These are not sidebar issues to be discussed from time to time by the few diverse individuals who sit outside these rooms, falling onto the ears of the highly empathic to the unconcerned and everywhere in between, yet left without action. These issues are major contributing factors to the state of our industry and society at large.

Shying away from understanding or acting against these difficult realities is like pretending coffee rust disease doesn’t exist — what devastating impact this would have on the livelihood of farmers, local economies and the global coffee world. Similarly, when we continue to ignore and normalize the effects of racism and inequality within the industry, we cannot expect positive outcomes.

The National Coffee Association USA (NCA) provides research data on U.S. coffee consumption through its annual National Coffee Drinking Trends (NCDT) survey. Established in 1950, it’s the longest-running coffee survey in the United States. The NCDT consistently shows that, in comparison to other ethnic groups, Black Americans are less likely to choose coffee as a preferred beverage. A summary of the NCDT notes that Black Americans always have reported lower percentages of coffee consumption when compared to Hispanic-Americans and Caucasians.

Key areas that may explain lower participation among some Black Americans include:

  1. A misperception of the health effects of coffee [within the Black community]...there is a general desire to limit caffeine intake in exchange for beverages that are thought to contain more healthful ingredients.

  2. Marketing...Producers of carbonated beverages and juices have been quite successful in targeting marketing campaigns toward Black American communities, and Black Americans over-index on consumption levels in these product categories [unlike coffee beverages which often lack cohesive and strategic marketing to Black Americans].

  3. Celebrity endorsements for coffee tend to come from middle-aged white men, while celebrity endorsements for carbonated beverages and fruit juices more often come from young black athletes or musicians.

When I pick up a cup of coffee at the airport, I notice the large number of Black employees working in cafes and food service. The majority of the customers being served are not Black. Standing in line, I think about my journey in coffee. I wonder about the employees’ understanding of coffee beyond the preparation of beverages with fancy names and complex recipes. Do they understand the history of coffee? Not the watered-down version that makes everyone comfortable, but the uncomfortable parts also. Would understanding this history offer more freedom, permission and pride? Could this foster a feeling of empowerment, and thus cause greater interest to do more in coffee?

About the Author:

Phyllis Johnson is president of BD Imports and has worked in the coffee industry for more than two decades. She’s an advocate for diversity and inclusion in the coffee supply chain, gender equity, economic opportunities, and the complex issues of race and coffee. She’s a graduate of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville with a degree in microbiology, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University with a degree in public administration. She lives in Georgia with her husband, Patrick. They have three children, Marcus, Matthew and Maya.

Special thanks to the author for permission to publish a condensed version of this article. For the full article, please visit


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