Starbucks implicit racial bias training: what to expect

If you want Starbucks this afternoon, you’re out of luck.

Between 1 and 3 pm on Tuesday, Starbucks locations across the country will close for an afternoon of racial bias training. The four-hour training will affect some 175,000 employees working at 8,000 company-owned stores, though licensed stores in grocery stores, hotels, and airports will not be affected.

The store closures and training are in reaction to the controversial arrest of two black men, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, in a Philadelphia Starbucks on April 12. The men were waiting for a business partner, but an employee called the police on them and they were arrested for trespassing.

Their arrest kicked off a wave of controversy for the company. It also served as the starting point in a wave of highly publicized racial profiling incidents in recent weeks that have made headlines and called national attention to the enduring problem of racism and racial bias in public spaces.

In response, Starbucks announced that it would hold a nationwide racial bias training in company stores, as well as additional trainings for new employees. The company also said it would make training materials available to other companies in the near future.

Racial profiling is not a problem limited to Starbucks, but stakes are high for the coffee giant, especially since it has long positioned itself as a progressive company that “gets” social issues, particularly racial ones. And while experts have noted that it is unlikely a single afternoon of training is enough to radically change company culture, Starbucks and the groups working with the company on the training argue that it is setting an example.

Starbucks’s training is one model for how corporations can respond to racial profiling going forward

Starbucks has long billed itself as a “third place,” a space distinct from the home or the office that gives people the chance to come together and interact.

But efforts to build this space haven’t always gone well. The company was widely mocked in 2015 for encouraging employees to write “Race Together” on coffee cups in an effort to start conversations about race. Critics said that campaign was focused more on optics than on actually addressing racism.

With its racial bias training, Starbucks is trying hard to avoid repeating that mistake. The company has tapped a number of civil rights experts to assist with the creation of the training, including Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Heather McGhee of Demos. A preview of the Starbucks training released last week notes that groups like the Perception Institute and the work of documentarian Stanley Nelson will also be part of the training.

And on May 19, the company announced that any person inside a Starbucks store would be treated as if they were a customer and would be allowed to use the restroom, regardless of whether they purchase something.

By tapping well-known civil rights experts for the May training, Starbucks seems to be trying to fight back against these previous “style over substance” critiques. On a call with reporters last week, Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund noted that while stories of racial profiling are “very familiar” to those in the black community, “the reaction from Starbucks was different.” She added that Starbucks was trying to “take responsibility, and we think that in doing so they created an important window for retail corporations in America to begin to honestly tackle racial inequality.”

Racial bias experts have suggested that Starbucks and other companies looking to address bias might instead focus on integrating their workforce. “In terms of best practices going forward, I think there constantly needs to be engagement at Starbucks and each franchise [by] having diverse people working there,” Leslie Culver, an expert on critical race theory at California Western School of Law, told me. “That way, when a customer comes in, their difference isn’t a big deal.”

For Culver, the biggest question about Starbucks isn’t about what happens during the racial bias training, but what comes after. “Whether that [training] conversation will be fruitful, whether there’s a better way to structure the conversation, is a completely different question,” she said.

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