Better plan to hit up your local Starbucks store early on Tuesday, May 29, all 8,000 Starbucks Coffee company-owned stores across American will be closed in the afternoon for Racial-Bias Education. What can the company, its employees and any other corporations in America expect to gain from racial-bias training, other than public relations gain? It depends, says the experts.

If you didn’t see the video, or hear about it, you were probably out of the country, or in a coma. We’re talking about the viral video of two Black men being arrested in one of Starbucks’ Philadelphia stores after a manager called police and said the men, who were sitting waiting on another business partner, were trespassing. The two were asked to leave, but others – White and Black – came to their defense, saying the two were not being disruptive and that their treatment was different from the treatment afforded non-Black clients.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson responded quickly. He was personally on the scene in Philadelphia the next day, spoke to and didn’t avoid the press, accepted blame for what happened and took action. His action, announced within a week of the event was a plan to close all of the Starbucks company-owned stores the afternoon of Tuesday, May 29, for racial-bias training.

What exactly is racial-bias training?

There’s no easy answer there, because racial-bias training isn’t a one size, fits all option. But it begins with the general concept of recognizing the bias that exist in all of us.

The concept has gained traction in mainstream understandings of race relations, thanks in part to the popularity of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a tool developed at Harvard that measures these biases by having subjects make associations under time pressure. For example, one version of the test has participants quickly match images of Asian people, European people, and monuments to descriptors like “Foreign” and “American.”

Getting someone to recognize they have bias doesn’t mean they’ll readily change them. Instead, Racial-bias training general involves employees recognizing the unconscious stereotypes they may harbor, and then discussing how those biases influence their behavior at work and ways to counteract them.

Does Racial-Bias Training Work?

Among the experts, the reviews about the results from racial bias training aren’t great.

Brian Nosek, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, who helped to found the nonprofit organization Project Implicit that promotes the IAT, says there isn’t a lot of evidence that the most programs make a lasting impact on behaviors. 

“I have been studying this since 1996, and I still have implicit bias,” says Nosek. “We can be sure that training by itself is not going to get rid of implicit bias.”

Nosek referred to work by Harvard sociology professor Frank Dobbin, who reviewed data on diversity efforts from more than 800 U.S. companies and interviewed hundreds of employees. They ultimately found that the positive effects of diversity training often don’t last beyond two days, and may actually entrench biases due to backlash.

“When companies get in hot water over bias, their initial reaction is often to do some kind of training because it’s something you can outsource and it’s relatively easy to do and has good optics,” says Dobbin. “The studies that look out six months to a year tend to be equally likely to show increased bias after the training as they are to show decreased bias.”

Next Steps

Remember we said, in the world of racial-bias training, there isn’t a one size fits all solutions. Starbucks CEO Johnson recognizes that as well as the shortcomings of just a half-day of anti-racist training. He’s identified the half-day training as just one step of many the company must take to address the issue.

Starbucks have put together a crack team of “national and local experts [in] confronting racial bias” who will be involved in monitoring and reviewing the effectiveness of the measures Starbucks takes. The team includes: Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative; Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; Heather McGhee, president of Demos; former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; and Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.

“While this [issue] is not limited to Starbucks, we’re committed to being a part of the solution,” Johnson said in a video. “Closing our stores for racial bias training is just one step in a journey that requires dedication from every level of our company and partnerships in our local communities.”

“This can’t be a one-off,” says Sherrilyn Ifill, of the NAACP and Starbucks’ experts panel, about the training planned by Starbucks. “We know that one day of training will not change this issue. But we do think it’s a window into a possibility of ongoing work.”

She says she joined the team of experts because of “Starbucks’ stated commitment to recognizing the real issue of racial discrimination and being serious about trying to tackle it and also trying to play a leadership role that others can follow.” When these disturbing incidents happen, she says, “some people want to believe that there’s some magic bullet, and there is not. Racism is deeply entrenched in our society and any real effort to confront it means you have to be in it for the long haul.”

Some Suggestions for Real Change

Instead of immediately moving towards training, the experts suggested Starbucks would have done better by taking an internal look at their situation and implementing internal policy changes.

Jack Glaser, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, suggested Starbucks should develop strong standards on how to handle someone believed “to be loitering, with clear rules what to do in those circumstances when there’s no danger.

“We know that what works best is for workers to be put side by side with people from other groups as have the work together collaboratively as equals,” says Dobbin. “That seems to be the best way to change stereotypes in people’s heads because it causes people not to lump all members of a group together, but to start to individuate.”

Racial minorities account for 40% of Starbucks’ overall workforce.

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