Starbucks Will Host Anti-Racist Training Session at 8,000 Stores

But don't expect it to fix whatever happened in Philadelphia last week.



Starbucks is facing heavy criticism after the manager of a Philadelphia location called the cops on two black men who declined to leave the coffeeshop when asked. Police arrested them, though Starbucks declined to press charges and they were later released.

Protesters briefly shut the store down on Monday, chanting "Starbucks coffee is anti-black! A whole lot of racism, a whole lot of crap!" Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson is currently in the middle of an apology tour, having appeared on Good Morning America, spoke with furious local politicians, and met with the arrested men. He also promised to implement implicit bias training so that Starbucks employees will be less inclined to discriminate against people of color. Indeed, Starbucks announced just moments ago that it would close 8,000 stores on May 29 in order to to conduct racial bias training.

It's quite possible that racism may have played a factor in the manager's unwise decision to call the cops. But the incident is complicated, and implicit bias training is unlikely to solve the problem.

According to press reports, the two men entered the Starbucks and asked for the key to the bathroom. But bathrooms at Starbucks are only for paying customers, and the two men hadn't ordered anything yet. Having been denied access to the toilet, they took a seat at a table, claiming that they were waiting for a friend to arrive before they ordered. The manager then asked them to leave. After they refused, she called the cops, who arrested them for trespassing.

They were trespassing. There is no inalienable right to sit in a Starbucks; if the manager asks you to leave, you should leave. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross has drawn criticism for defending the officers who made the arrests, but the cops did what they were supposed to do, given the situation. The mistake was the decision to call the cops in the first place.

People routinely come into Starbucks, sit down, and wait for someone else to show up before ordering. I have done this dozens of times, and I have never once had a problem. The fact that such behavior so irked the manager in this specific case is what raises the possibility of racial bias.

I realize that it can be annoying for Starbucks employees, and for other customers, when people occupy valuable real estate inside a store for a long period of time without consuming, or paying for, a Starbucks product. The Starbucks locations I frequent are often filled way beyond capacity, with seemingly every seat taken by people who looks like they finished their coffee hours ago. Obviously, Starbucks is losing money if people are just sitting there for long stretches of time, using the wifi but not buying anything.

But that's a general defense of kicking people out of Starbucks when the place is busy, not a claim about what was happening here. Since we have only limitated video footage of the incident, we don't know how crowded the shop was, or even if it was crowded at all. It's perfectly plausible that in this case the policy was selectively enforced in a racist way.

That leads us to another problem: expecting implicit bias training to fix things. As Jack Glaser, a Berkeley professor of public policy, told CNN:

The bottom line is we don't know how to change the biases in a meaningful, lasting way, because they're…the way we think normally and they're based on years of exposure. So in the absence of being able to change them, we need to change the way people make decisions and the way that they act.

We may not even properly understand how to gauge such biases in the first place. The most famous tool for measuring subconscious racial animus—the Implicit Association Test (IAT)—has been thoroughly debunked as junk science. As New York magazine's Jesse Singal has written:

A pile of scholarly work, some of it published in top psychology journals and most of it ignored by the media, suggests that the IAT falls far short of the quality-control standards normally expected of psychological instruments. The IAT, this research suggests, is a noisy, unreliable measure that correlates far too weakly with any real-world outcomes to be used to predict individuals' behavior—even the test's creators have now admitted as such. The history of the test suggests it was released to the public and excitedly publicized long before it had been fully validated in the rigorous, careful way normally demanded by the field of psychology. In fact, there's a case to be made that Harvard shouldn't be administering the test in its current form, in light of its shortcomings and its potential to mislead people about their own biases. There's also a case to be made that the IAT went viral not for solid scientific reasons, but simply because it tells us such a simple, pat story about how racism works and can be fixed: that deep down, we're all a little—or a lot—racist, and that if we measure and study this individual-level racism enough, progress toward equality will ensue.

The company should make whatever changes to its policies or training programs that it sees fit. But there isn't a magic implicit-bias-training wand that will make this sort of conflict go away, and Starbucks will be disappointed if it expects otherwise.