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What Starbucks is teaching its employees during anti-bias training

Starbucks is closing 8,000 of its stores Tuesday afternoon for racial bias training stemming from an April incident in Philadelphia in which two black men were arrested for doing nothing.

Protesters outside of a Philadelphia Starbucks in April 2018.
Protesters outside a Philadelphia Starbucks in April 2018.
Mark Makela/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

If you notice your local Starbucks is closed on Tuesday afternoon, it’s for a reason: The coffee company is shutting 8,000 stores today for racial bias training. It’s the latest step Starbucks is taking as part of its ongoing response to the public outcry over the arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia store in April.

Starbucks enlisted some big names to shape the training workers will get, including former US Attorney General Eric Holder, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund president and director-counsel Sherrilyn Ifill, and Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt.

Last week, Starbucks released a video preview of its bias training curriculum. The video opens with the footage of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, the two men arrested at the Philadelphia Starbucks on April 12, that went viral, spurring public outcry and, in turn, Starbucks’s response.

“It’s not an accident that this phenomenon happens in society, and it’s an American problem, not just a Starbucks problem,” Heather McGhee, the president of the public policy organization Demos who helped developed Starbucks’s curriculum, told me.

According to the preview, employees will be welcomed by video messages from Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson and rapper Common, one of its training “guides,” and will also see messages from chair Howard Schultz. Workers will then be expected to hold conversations about their personal experiences and biases.

“Ultimately, 5/29 will focus on creating belonging in our stores and learning about what gets in the way,” a voiceover of the video says.

Each store will receive a “toolkit” to let employees work together in small groups, and Tuesday’s first training will focus on “understanding racial bias and the history of public accommodations in the United States,” according to the company’s website.

Rachel Godsil, director of research at the Perception Institute, a research and advocacy group that is working with Starbucks to craft its training curriculum, said the goal of the afternoon is to “create a context where people who are working at Starbucks understand, essentially, the different experiences that people have when they enter a store.”

She described a number of exercises in which employees will participate, including a “difference challenge,” where two workers will pair up and discuss ways they’re different, and group exercises that address racial anxieties, biases, and stereotypes.

She emphasized that Tuesday’s training is part of a broader effort by Starbucks to overhaul its policies and said that 12 months from now, the company will host a sort of summit to circle back on what it learns. “This is the first and not the only measure that’s going to be taken in response to Philadelphia,” she said.

A spokesperson for Starbucks said all of the training material will be available online at midnight Pacific time on Tuesday.

Part of the training will also include viewing You’re Welcome, a new documentary by Stanley Nelson commissioned by Starbucks. (The company had no editorial input.) The film explores racial discrimination in public accommodations.

The preview video shows a clip of an interview with a black man in the film who discusses how he comports himself in public. “I try to make sure I make eye contact with people who may or may not be security or managerial staff just to ensure that, you know, I’m not here to hide anything. I watch my tone to make sure that I don’t come off as threatening,” he says. “Just leaving the house some days, you know, it’ll just keep you at home.”

Some evidence suggests bias training sessions struggle to make long-term change

It’s not clear how effective the anti-bias training Starbucks is employing will be. Vox’s Julia Belluz recently spoke with five social scientists about the matter, and they told her a few hours of training probably won’t do much to address the broader problem of pervasive bias. There’s evidence suggesting such training sessions fail to alter racial biases and behaviors in the long term and can sometimes backfire by bringing biases to the surface and activating stereotypes.

“[Starbucks] felt they needed to make a symbolic gesture,” Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin told Belluz. “The problem is that corporate America has been making this symbolic gesture since the 1970s.” He added that such efforts are “just window dressing.”

McGhee pushed back on the assertion that Starbucks’s training will be ineffective. She pointed out that while corporate headquarters and management bodies often get diversity training, front-line employees in retail, food, and the service industry often do not.

“Very few people get the kind of information and education and opportunities to discuss these issues, particularly people who are not going to elite, liberal colleges,” she said. While obviously it’s important to moderate expectations, “even if it’s a half-day, it’s going to be half a day more than most people get in their public schools,” she said.

This all stems from an April incident where two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks for doing nothing

On April 12, Nelson and Robinson were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. The men were waiting for a business associate and asked to use the bathroom when employees called the police.

The company initially issued a less-than-satisfying apology, and Johnson, Starbucks’s CEO, later issued a lengthy statement about the incident in which he apologized to the men arrested, laid out plans to investigate the incident, and affirmed Starbucks’s stance against discrimination and racial profiling. “You can and should expect more from us,” he wrote. “We will learn from this and be better.”

The company soon announced that the manager who called the police in Philadelphia no longer worked at the store, and Johnson met with the men who were arrested.

In May, Nelson and Robinson reached a settlement with the city of Philadelphia over the incident for $1 each and asked the city to fund $200,000 for a grant program for young entrepreneurs. They also reached a financial agreement with Starbucks for an undisclosed amount as well as “continued listening and dialogue between the parties and specific action and opportunity.”

The Philadelphia Starbucks incident highlights a much broader and more pervasive problem in America: the frequency with which white people call the police on black people without cause. In recent weeks, a number of racial profiling incidents have made the news — the owner of a Pennsylvania country club called the police on five black women for playing too slowly, a black woman was violently arrested in an Alabama Waffle House over a dispute over her bill, and Nordstrom apologized after calling the police in Missouri on three teenagers shopping for prom. A video went viral of police defending a black real estate investor after a white woman called the police on him.

Starbucks earlier this month in a letter to employees said it will treat anyone in its cafes as a customer — regardless of whether they buy something. It outlined for workers procedures to respond to disruptive customers, including calling 911 if the person is an immediate danger.

Starbucks’s updated policies also included an ask for customers to “behave in a manner that maintains a warm and welcoming environment.” Employees are instructed to approach customers who engage in behaviors such as smoking, shoplifting, or making unwanted sexual advances.

The company has undertaken efforts to streamline guidelines for all of its stores surrounding how to engage with nonpaying patrons. The guidelines for employees at the Philadelphia store where the April incident happened were for employees to ask nonpaying guests to leave — not to call the police.

McGhee said that she and others who consulted Starbucks on its anti-bias efforts made clear to the company that its training day needed to be a small piece of a much broader effort. “This needs to be a 360-degree transformation of the company through the racial equality lens,” she said. “If it’s mission critical, then Starbucks can do it.”

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