After a racial incident that garnered national attention last weekend, Starbucks has required racial-bias training for all its employees. This move has the potential to positively impact America, but the company has an uphill climb.
Here's what happened. On April 12 a patron at a Philadelphia Starbucks captured a video of two black men being arrested, seemingly for doing nothing. The store manager called the police, saying the men had not bought anything and refused to leave. It turns out they'd only been in the store for two minutes and were waiting for a friend to order. The video quickly went viral, getting millions of views on Twitter and YouTube.
Starbucks first issued a terse, three-sentence apology that immediately sparked more backlash. Then, on Tuesday, the company said it would close all 8,000 of its nationwide stores on the afternoon of May 29, and give mandatory racial bias training to its 175,000 employees.
Considering the nearly ubiquitous place that Starbucks holds in America, experts agreed that such a training could have a wide-reaching social effects. If it's handled correctly.
@Starbucks The police were called because these men hadn’t ordered anything. They were waiting for a friend to show up, who did as they were taken out in handcuffs for doing nothing. All the other white ppl are wondering why it’s never happened to us when we do the same thing. pic.twitter.com/0U4Pzs55Ci
— Melissa DePino (@missydepino) April 12, 2018
The challenges and opportunities of anti-discrimination training
In their press release announcing the training, Starbucks said that in the weeks before May 29, it would develop a program that promised to address "implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination, and ensure everyone inside a Starbucks store feels safe and welcome." The release also listed a number of notable people who would assist in developing the program, like former Attorney General Eric Holder and NAACP President Sherrilyn Ifill.
However, experts agree that it's a long road between one afternoon of training and an impactful change in behavior. And some were critical that it took a viral incident for Starbuck to address the issue, calling it reactive instead of proactive.
"I think that anytime that you do racial-bias training, being proactive is the best approach," Matthew Kincaid, founder of Overcoming Racism, a consulting organization that trains corporations and schools on eliminating racial bias, said. "They should invest in doing this as part of the onboarding training. They are acting reactively rather than doing something proactively and creating a culture."
Kincaid said that many employees might be turned off by the mandatory nature of the training, and may feel like they're getting blamed for something that happened in another store.
Many also question the efficacy of taking just five weeks to develop a plan for so many employees, and wonder about the consistency of such a broad training.
"The quality control is the question," Dr. Bryant Marks, Morehouse College psychology professor and founding director of The National Training Institute on Race & Equity, said. "I don't know how they're going to standardized the experience."
He said the best way to train so many people at once would be through video, but that might have an adverse effect on engagement. He added that it's better to have a trained professional lead a video than a sub-par leader initiate a live session, but either way, he said, it would be tough for the company to make sure the message was received equally by everyone.
All agreed, however, that if Starbucks is committed to educating its employees on bias and discrimination, the company will have to be in it for the long haul.
"This would have to be the beginning of an ongoing body of work." Marks said. "One training is good for raising awareness, but it's only the beginning of changing a culture. "
The debate on implicit bias training
On top of Starbucks' decision to provide training is the question of the type of training it plans to provide. The implicit bias program that Starbucks is enacting, the company hopes, would target biases that people act upon without active awareness. Implicit biases include things like associating black people with "criminality" or mischaracterizing the age and size of black people.
But there's an ongoing debate among psychologists and sociologists about the ability of this type of training to actually affect people's behavior. There are even some studies that say implicit bias training has an "often weak" result.
Marks approves of Starbucks' approach toward implicit bias training, because the situation that arose seems to have been caused specifically because of the Starbucks manager's unconscious bias towards to the two men. Though, of trainings, he said that what's most needed is a skilled leader.
"Any trainer worth their salt is going to acknowledge the levels on which bias can occur," he said.
Starbucks could have chosen other forms of training. Kincaid's Overcoming Racism program, for instance, specializes in training that helps inform people how to act on their behavior rather than merely pointing out that they have it.
"Racial-bias training helps us understand and recognize the biases that we have, but it doesn't help us promote actions," Kincaid said. "Anti-racism training helps us act against a system that ultimately hurts all of us. People understanding bias makes people more aware of that, but it doesn't change the system and people's thoughts and action."
His consultation consists of understanding not only a specific person's biases, but also understanding the underlying systemic bias and how to personally address it.
Starbucks would not offer Mashable further clarification as to how the company determined the best and most consistent course of action for the training.
Kincaid believes that a single training could not illicit the type of change that Starbucks claims to want to make. A shift in the company's culture would be needed, not only externally to customers, but also internally, regarding staffers' attitudes toward each other. And it will take some time.
"I don't believe that anti-racism or racial-bias training actually changes people's behavior in the long term," Kincaid said. "What does change people's behavior is changing the culture of an institution. When we belong to organizations, we adapt to the culture of that organization. I think Starbucks has to be very thoughtful about the policies that make this a place where something like this could happen."
But according to Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, what happened in Starbucks "wasn't just racist, it was anti-black." She thinks whatever training happens should address that specifically.
"Not all trainings are created equal," she said. "And not all trainings are going to do the thing you want them to do. What is key is having an important conversation on historical anti-black racism."
This has been a very public affair for Starbucks, and one thing is sure: The ramifications of the company's decision is something others are keeping an eye on.
"I think the incident has a lot of CEOs across the country giving some deep thought to their training and their culture," Dr. Marks said. "And I think it's a watershed moment that could have a lasting impact."
Starbucks as America's problematic third place
In sociological disciplines, there is the notion of a "third place." The idea is that you have a place at home and a place at work, and a healthy civic system would have a third place where people can gather and constructively interact, like a church or the shopping malls of yore.
Many have thought for a while that Starbucks has become America's third place; it's a semi-neutral gathering place where people meet and interact. In fact, the company says on their website that it hopes to be a "third place between work and home." It would be hard to argue that the coffee chain has not made progress toward this goal, what with the number of stores, convenient locations, and relatively low-priced offerings.
But that's only part of the story.
As Cullors said, "For a lot of us, the way we know gentrification is happening is a Starbucks comes to their community."
Even in real estate terms there's something known as a "Starbucks Effect," meaning that proximity to a Starbucks raises value on homes. Historically working class or poorer neighborhoods are the ones that tend to feel this effect, with those raised values driving people out of their established communities.
Also Starbucks has stated they want to create a “community” atmosphere & purchases aren’t required to sit, use WiFi, etc. Employees have been on Twitter for days confirming this.
— Nina Parker (@MzGossipGirl) April 19, 2018
Many, including Cullors, believe that the company should be more engaged with the communities they enter. Starbucks should put money into building up those neighborhoods, serving as a part of rather than a symbol against them.
The arrest of two black men only served to underscore this divide between what Starbucks wants to create and the reality of its place within some communities.
Still, some are finding positives in the event. Cullors thought it was important that the woman who took the original video was white.
"She was protesting what was happening," she said. "There's something about bearing witness, and in that witnessing disrupting what you're seeing. It was an amazing ally moment. We need more of that from white people."
Even though this training might be a public relations reaction to bad press, it's still a chance for a company that wants to be an integral part of American lives to positively impact its employees and customers.
But Starbucks needs to follow through on its intentions.
"Starbucks could become a conduit for this conversation, but it has to be in the heart of Starbucks and not something that comes with negative press," Kincaid said. "This work is being done, there are those out here who are having the conversation proactively. I really hope that this incident can be used to elevate the many warriors in this battle against racism all across the country."