Starbucks’ tactic to address racial bias is not going to work

Close for racism.
Close for racism.
Image: AP Photo/Elise Amendola
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Starbucks often touts its progressive values. But its response to a recent episode of racial discrimination suggests that the coffee chain is operating under outdated ideas about what it takes to combat prejudice.

On Apr. 12, police arrested two African-American men who were waiting for a third person to join them at a Philadelphia Starbucks. The men were allegedly asked to leave by a Starbucks employee, who then called the police reporting that they were “refusing to make a purchase or leave.” The two men were in custody for almost nine hours before being released without charges.

The incident generated widespread public criticism, and Starbucks was quick to issue an apology to the two men. Now Starbucks has announced that it will close more than 8,000 company-owned stores around the US on the afternoon of May 29 so that its 175,000 employees can receive racial-bias training. The training will also become part of the on-boarding process for new hires. ”The company’s founding values are based on humanity and inclusion,” Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz said in a statement.

Shutting down all of Starbucks’ US stores for the afternoon is an expensive endeavor. And it sends a clear message about the company’s commitment to improving the way its employees deal with their clientele. Before this occasion, the company had only closed its shops nationwide once before, shuttering them for three hours in 2008 to train baristas on how to make better coffee.

Unfortunately, the training may turn out to be little more than a marketing tool—signaling where the company’s values lie, rather than an effective means of addressing racial bias. For one thing, Starbucks plans to use implicit bias training in the afternoon session. And research shows that this technique simply doesn’t work.

Implicit bias is a huge area of research in psychology, and is based on the idea that many acts of prejudice are motivated by unconscious thoughts rather than malicious, conscious racism. As Quartz has written  before, the main psychological test used to evaluate implicit bias does not meet scientific standards.

Although implicit prejudice most certainly exists, we don’t know how to measure it or clearly distinguish it from conscious bias. And, most worryingly for Starbucks, the methods that psychologists have devised for reducing implicit bias—techniques such as “thinking slowly,” which supposedly enables your conscious thoughts to override troubling unconscious impulses—have been found to be ineffective.

For all these reasons, implicit bias training won’t be enough to steer Starbucks employees away from future acts of discrimination. And tackling the problem will require much more effort beyond a single afternoon.