Does Starbucks Understand the Science of Racial Bias?

The company has a chance to be one of the first to get antibias training right.

Demonstrators gather in a Starbucks as a police officer watches them.
Jacqueline Larma / AP

Many have seen the viral video by now: Last month, two black men arrived early to a business meeting at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, and were led out in handcuffs after one man asked to use the bathroom without making a purchase, then calmly joined his friend at a table. In the moment, their expressions were impassive, but they later described feeling disbelief and fear.

After days of protests and an apology from Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson for what he referred to as a “reprehensible outcome,” Starbucks announced that it would shut down its stores for a day in May to train all of its nearly 175,000 employees in recognizing implicit bias. Reactions ranged from surprise and applause to concerns the move was about image management. Mostly, there were questions: What exactly was Starbucks planning to do?

Last week, the company issued a new statement, clarifying that May 29 would be the first stage of a “multiphase” bias training, and the first step of a longer-term antibias effort. This light-speed scramble—from a day of training to a full-on antibias overhaul—suggests a rapid evolution in Starbucks’s understanding of what taking on bias means. If Starbucks follows through, it will be one of the first major corporations to develop a comprehensive plan for tackling bias head-on—and potentially forge a new path for its peers to follow. Now, the approach the company takes to the May 29 event will be a litmus test for that larger commitment.

The idea of implicit bias is that our human minds are, through repeated cultural exposure, conditioned to associate specific traits, characteristics, and behaviors with certain groups of people. When we encounter an individual from one of these groups, those associations arise spontaneously, and they can influence our behavior toward that person, even without our awareness or intent. The Starbucks manager who called the police on the two men appears to have been reacting to them based more on entrenched stereotypes about black men in this culture than on the reality of their interaction.

As the idea of implicit bias has permeated our culture, an entire industry has sprung up, like mushrooms after rain, to conduct trainings meant to raise awareness of the problem and counteract it. But few of the implicit-bias trainings that are now de rigueur have been rigorously evaluated. Many don’t measure their own impact. In fact, many don’t establish concrete goals at all. The approach is akin to whipping up an elixir to treat a disease, and then dispensing it to patients without ever assessing its effects—or even deciding what its effects should be.

This is risky, because studies have found that some approaches can be counterproductive. Michelle Duguid of Cornell University and Melissa Thomas-Hunt of Vanderbilt have found, for instance, that when people hear that stereotyping is normal, they may do more of it. If the message is simply “implicit bias is everywhere,” the Princeton psychologist Betsy Levy Paluck told me, “this normalizes prejudice. A better message would be: Yes, we all have minds that, if we’re not careful, can reflect cultural stereotypes, and that we need to fight against habits of mind.”

Indeed, the few antibias trainings that have been proven to change people’s behavior make this case. One training, developed by Patricia Devine and colleagues at the Prejudice and Intergroup Relations Lab at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, looks at bias as a habit that can be broken. Their approach—which I’ve written about before—consists of a couple of hours of modules based on what the researchers see as three essential elements of an antibias intervention: awareness of the problem, motivation to do something about it, and strategies for what to do. The strategies include observing stereotypes arise and mentally replacing them, actively looking for situational explanations for a person’s behavior, and trying to imagine what the world would look and feel like from another person’s point of view.

Early results of this approach are promising. In one version, the researchers gave hundreds of students a training focused on racial bias. Compared to students who hadn’t received the training, students who received the training were more likely to notice incidents of bias as they went through their daily lives. Even two years later, students who received the training were more likely to speak out against racial bias in a public forum than those who hadn’t. Another version, which focused on gender bias, was presented to STEM faculty at the University of Wisconsin. In departments that had received the training, the proportion of women faculty hired over the next two years increased from 32 to 47 percent. Departments that hadn’t received the training showed no change at all.

Some of the strategies this approach presents—resisting the easy labeling of others, envisioning why a person might be acting the way they do—were present in another training that’s been proven effective. In order to try to reduce school suspensions, Jason Okonofua, a psychologist at the UC Berkeley, and his colleagues trained a cohort of middle-school teachers to bring an “empathic mind-set” to student discipline. This included focusing on understanding students’ perspectives, understanding reasons students might be misbehaving, and avoiding labeling students as “troublemakers.” Over the following year, students whose teachers had undergone this training were half as likely to be suspended as students whose teachers hadn’t. For African American and Latino students—two groups who experience high rates of school suspension—suspensions dropped from 12.3 to 6.3 percent.

There are signs Starbucks is, perhaps, rapidly gaining an appreciation for the complexity of this task. The company has, in three weeks, moved from its original announcement of a day of implicit-bias training, in collaboration with advisors including Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Heather McGhee of Demos, to a description of comprehensive reform, and, according to McGhee, a commitment to identifying metrics and ongoing monitoring and evaluation.* When I spoke with McGhee, she told me that the advisors have also connected Starbucks with social scientists who focus on this domain. “We all knew there is specialized knowledge; there are people who have dedicated their lives to this who need to be consulted,” she said. The company’s most recent public announcement states it will be working specifically with experts in antibias training.

One of the biggest challenges may be one of timing: The company’s feeling of urgency is apparent, but the due diligence required to create something actually meaningful takes time. Starbucks has run into trouble with an ambitious race-related initiative before; its 2015 “Race Together” campaign was immediately and heavily criticized. But McGhee’s description of the May 29 event as a “launch” suggests that this time Starbucks is taking a more deliberate approach. Beyond the training, says Patrick Forscher, a University of Arkansas psychologist who was part of the Madison training, “if Starbucks makes an ongoing investment in improving the climate in stores, in ongoing monitoring, that sends a good message to customers and employees, and sets norms that they take this seriously.”

Social scientists like Devine who have developed effective trainings have made clear that because the problems of prejudice and discrimination are so massive, trainings like these can only be one small piece. On the individual level, too, a training is only a first step in reckoning with bias: Transforming one’s relationship with deeply rooted stereotypes requires a vigilant attention that develops over time, the way a building a muscle’s strength requires regular practice and repetition.

If Starbucks does take this work seriously, the company has an unusual opportunity—an opportunity, as McGhee put it, to answer the question, “What does it truly mean to be an anti-racist institution?”

* This article previously misidentified Sherrilyn Ifill's institutional affiliation. We regret the error.