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.