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Starbucks’s racial bias training has some big names behind it

Civil rights experts like former US Attorney General Eric Holder will help create the curriculum.

Protesters demonstrate outside of Starbucks on April 15, 2018. Starbucks has tapped several civil rights experts to help with the company’s May 29 racial bias training.
Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The controversial arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks last week has prompted the company to announce that it would close 8,000 stores for an afternoon to give its employees racial bias training. And Starbucks is enlisting some big names to help.

The company has tapped civil rights experts like former US Attorney General Eric Holder, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Heather McGhee of Demos, and Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, according to an April 17 press release. The experts will help create the training curriculum, which will then be rolled out to some 175,000 employees on May 29. The experts will also review how effective the training is after it has been completed.

The announcement comes at a crucial time for the company, which has sought to limit the fallout from the April 12 incident in which Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were arrested for trespassing as they waited inside a Starbucks for a business partner. During a Thursday interview with Good Morning America, the men said they had been inside the Starbucks for only two minutes before the manager called the police.

While the incident seemed extreme to some, it’s a familiar story for any black person who has been treated with suspicion while inside a store. “It’s part of a very, very long story about African-Americans and public accommodations and how we are treated in public spaces,” Ifill, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund director who will help with the training curriculum, told NPR on Wednesday.

The arrest has opened up a discussion about race in public spaces and led to calls to boycott Starbucks, as well as protests at the Philadelphia store where the men were arrested.

Experts say anti-bias training is often ineffective. Starbucks needs to get this right.

The stakes are high for Starbucks; the coffee giant has long positioned itself as a progressive company that “gets” social issues, particularly racial ones.

In 2016, the company opened its first store in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police shooting of Michael Brown and ensuing protests there. Starbucks described this as part of a larger effort to expand into low-income communities that would create jobs and provide skills training for local youth.

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. By tapping serious and well-known civil rights experts for the May training, Starbucks may be trying to fight back against “style over substance” critiques.

Racial bias training itself is not without controversy, as Vox’s Julia Belluz explains, because these types of trainings have often been judged ineffective by experts.

“Diversity trainings are filled with good intentions and poor evidence,” Brian Nosek, a University of Virginia researcher, told Belluz. “In terms of training in general, no matter what the topic, there’s very little evidence that it on its own can change behaviors.”

Other experts agree. “We should be skeptical of the training’s ability to transform, in any meaningful way, white workers’ biases toward black customers,” Hakeem J. Jefferson, a political science PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, told Belluz.

Rather than focusing so much work on an afternoon of training, experts suggest that Starbucks and other companies looking to address bias might be better served by focusing on better integrating their workforce.

But Starbucks seems to be banking on its training, and the people it has asked to create it. The company says it plans to make the curriculum available to other companies.

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