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The implicit bias of Starbucks’ implicit bias training

'Implicit bias' training is a trendy tool for crisis managers, but critics say it 'dilutes corporate responsibility.'

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 15:  Protestors, mother and step-daughter, Donn T (L) and Soren Mcclay, 14, (R) demonstrate outside a Center City Starbucks on April 15, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 15: Protestors, mother and step-daughter, Donn T (L) and Soren Mcclay, 14, (R) demonstrate outside a Center City Starbucks on April 15, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

In an obvious public relations move aimed at buttressing his company’s socially conscious and responsible image in the wake of mounting protests following the arrest last week of two black men who were waiting for a friend in a Philadelphia coffee shop, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson ordered mandatory “unconscious bias” training for his company’s employees.

No doubt, Johnson is convinced that will surely fix the problem of racial profiling.

So to prove he meant business, Johnson met Tuesday in Philadelphia with city officials, police authorities, civil rights advocates, and store employees. He emerged from those discussions to with a solution to Starbuck’s immediate concern: The company will close all of its company-owned coffee shops during the afternoon of May 29 to conduct a corporate racial-bias education program.

“I’ve spent the last few days in Philadelphia with my leadership team listening to the community, learning what we did wrong and the steps we need to take to fix it,” Johnson said in a statement. “While this is not limited to Starbucks, we’re committed to being a part of the solution. 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.”

The decision to close the stores to train about 175,000 employees in the 8,000 company-owned stores in the United States followed his Monday appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” where he accepted blame and apologized profusely for the arrests. During that interview, Johnson announced his intention to have the company’s managers in nearly 28,000 coffee shops worldwide to undergo new training to spot instances of implicit bias in their dealings with customers.

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“Clearly, there’s an opportunity for us to provide clarity and in addition to that I’d say there’s training, more training that we’re going to do with our store managers, not only around the guidelines but training around unconscious bias,” Johnson said on the morning news show.

Johnson’s rapid response won kudos from business executives and crisis management experts as an example of “textbook leadership” from a corporate executive confronting an apparent — and video-graphed — example of racial profiling.

Marcel Schwantes, a corporate leadership coach, praised the move on Inc.’s website, arguing that Johnson “did what every good leader does when faced with a P.R. crisis…he sprung into action, on a Saturday.”

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“With the public outcry of discrimination getting louder each day and others calling for the store manager’s job, Johnson acknowledged a potentially deeper and systemic management issue that places the blame squarely on his shoulders,” said Schwantes, who is principal and founder of Leadership from the Core, a firm that advises corporate managers.

But a growing cadre of skeptical social scientists have raised doubts that Johnson’s reflexive call for bias training, while a savvy and face-saving move for Starbucks, would amount to a serious effort to change or address the structural racism that allowed the incident to unfold in the first place.

Michéle Lamont, a professor of sociology and African-American Studies, and director of Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, told ThinkProgress that many companies are promoting implicit bias training in order to signal to the public that it’s addressing and apologizing for internal problems while doing little to nothing to change the actual practices and procedures within the company.

“This announcement of [unconscious bias] training has the virtue of saying good moral people like me are being racist, even if we’re not intending to be,” Lamont said. “It allows [companies like Starbucks] to defend themselves and to say they’re doing something about racism when they’re not really.”

Ever since Mahzarin Banaji at Yale and Anthony Greenwald at the University of Washington announced in 1998 that they had developed the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a psychological tool that they said revealed and quantified hidden racist attitudes that people were unaware they held, an entire cottage industry has sprouted around implicit bias testing.

Over the intervening two decades, various versions of implicit bias testing have been widely embraced for their self-proclaimed ability to intuit difficult-to-prove perceptions of racism with seemingly scientific accuracy.

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Perhaps the most widely-known of these tests is Project Implicit’s “black/white IAT” — an online sorting exam that asks the participant to associate certain words with black or white faces. The test measures the speed that a person fixes to a set of flashing faces with positive-value words (such as appealing, excellent, joyful) or negative-value words (such as poison, hate or fear).

According to a skeptical report of IATs in Quartz, some 17 million implicit bias tests have been taken online since October 2015. What’s more, Quartz noted that corporate human resource departments, law enforcement agencies, and universities have taken note of the popularity of these tests and have begun developing workshops to incorporate them into their increasingly multicultural interactions with the public.

Lamont, who now works as a colleague with Banaji at Harvard, is a critic of IATs, and she questions the degree to which these tests “distinguish between whether people have negative evaluations of members of a particular group or a lack of familiarity with that group.”

In other words, implicit bias testing may not show what it claims. To be fair, the test isn’t predictive of attitudes or behavior, only illustrative of feelings that a someone fails to know or acknowledge. But what causes those feelings – racism or any number of other attitudinal triggers – is subject of enormous social science debate.

Lamont expresses this lack of clarity about the roots of what IATs are interpreting or measuring in a draft of a soon-to-be released paper that she co-wrote with Harvard colleagues Laura Adler, Bo Yun Park, and Xin Xiang:

The study of implicit attitudes using Implicit Association Test tries to show that people hold implicit biases that can bring about discriminatory behavior; but this approach presumes that a longer response time always means the same thing and cannot distinguish between responses that reflect a simple signal of familiarity and those that reflect a substantive (good/bad) evaluation of the subject matter.

Darrick Hamilton, a professor of economics and urban policy at the New School in New York City, says that while there’s value in the awareness that implicit bias testing provokes, its mere application can’t be a cure-all for the public exposure of racial profiling or other acts of racism.

“I don’t want to delegitimize implicit bias as a social construct because awareness is important,” Hamilton said in an interview. “But the use of it by corporate interests, as in the case of Starbucks, dilutes corporate responsibility. It’s a PR mechanism of softening the direct accountability to the societal norm of bigotry.”

Hamilton believes a more meaningful response to racial profiling would be for companies to publicly redress the harm produced in deed, as well as word.

“Corporations have enough tools and inputs to get beyond improved training,” he said, noting they could send testers into the stores to see how customers are treated and to let the public know the findings. “The best mechanism that Starbucks could impose, what any concerned corporation could do, is address people’s actions with carrots and sticks. Teams of black and white actors sent to apply for jobs or test the service would indicate a clear signal.”

To be sure, the most effective antidote to corporate racism and racial profiling may come in the pressure exerted on institutions from its customers and clients. In the Starbucks example, much of the power and outrage of the incident stems from the videoed images of the two black men quietly surrendering to several police officers as incensed white customers shouted for an explanation of why the pair were being arrested.

Melissa DePino, a writer who frequently worked from the coffee shop, captured and posted the arrest with her phone. In an article she wrote for CNN, DePino said the attention brought to the incident might not have come without the video because the implicit bias of many white people doesn’t allow for the possibility that such a thing might happen to black customers because it’s unlikely to occur to them.

“Things like this happen to black and brown people in this country every single day, and they talk about it, tweet about it, and write about it, but for more reasons than I can discuss intelligently in this small space, people who look like me — white people — often don’t see, hear or believe their stories,” she wrote. “And what’s even worse is that it often takes a black or brown person experiencing this type of painful situation — and having it exposed it to the world — for many of us to even get involved, which in and of itself is part of the larger problem.”

She’s right. For all of Johnson’s well-meaning PR statements and imposition of implicit bias training, what’s needed at Starbucks is an espresso served with a grande measure of human empathy.