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Starbucks is closing thousands of stores for racial bias training. Will it work?

Starbucks is closing thousands of stores for racial bias training. Will it work?
Activist Asa Khalif speaks into a bullhorn inside a Starbucks store in Philadelphia on Sunday to demand the firing of an employee who called police on two black customers. (Michael Bryant / Philadephia Inquirer)

Next month, the nation's biggest coffee chain will close thousands of its U.S. stores for an afternoon to tell 175,000 employees that they may have been racist without realizing it.

That is the premise behind at least 8,000 "racial-bias education" seminars that Starbucks will hold May 29 at its stores and corporate offices in response to a viral video of two black men being arrested in a Philadelphia store.

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The two men, 23-year-old business partners, had come to a Starbucks in the city's wealthy Rittenhouse Square neighborhood last week for a meeting to discuss real estate. When a manager denied one of the men bathroom access because he hadn't made a purchase, an employee called the cops.

Police showed up as the men were waiting for a third person to arrive and led them out of the store for trespassing. The men left jail after midnight, and the incident spurred protests that briefly shut down the store.

It's not unusual for an employer to mandate anti-bias training, especially during a time when incidents of alleged racism captured on video have ignited protests against businesses and the police. Google and Facebook offer it.

But Starbucks stands out because its baristas personally interact with such a wide swath of America — every demographic group. Experts said the effort could spur more eating and drinking establishments to get aggressive about their anti-racism programs.

"This is a pivotal moment," said Georgina Dodge, an associate provost for diversity, equity and inclusion at Bucknell University. "It's someone putting their foot down and saying enough is enough."

Starbucks' chief executive, Kevin Johnson, said this week that the training would be "designed to address implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination and ensure everyone inside a Starbucks store feels safe and welcome."

To create a curriculum, the company has enlisted prominent civil rights leaders, including former U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder, Anti-Defamation League Chief Executive Jonathan Greenblatt, NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill and Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson.

The Anti-Defamation League is known for its own programs, including those that work with police and schools to reduce racial, religious, gender and sexuality bias. Starbucks said it wants to share what it develops with other businesses.

"These kinds of presentations are, at their base, relatively simple," said Bryant Marks, a Morehouse College psychology professor and implicit bias instructor who has trained employees of Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles Police Department and American Express.

"One thing we teach is that you can have biases even as a good person," he said. "For example, if your exposure to black males through media and your life has been disproportionately negative, that may influence your unconscious bias against them."

Marks, a former member of President Obama's 21st Century Policing Task Force, said anti-bias training for police took off nationally after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. In recent months, he has trained police in Chicago, Burlington, Vt., and Winston-Salem, N.C., in 75-minute sessions.

He said the seminars offer an overview of what bias is, where it comes from, "what it looks like in the real world and how to manage or reduce it," and how it is revealed in data on racial disparities in housing, education, law enforcement and employment.

Marks said the Starbucks push could be a bellwether moment for other retailers.

But does anti-bias training work?

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Experts said that while it can make people more aware of their biases against discriminated and stereotyped groups, it's not clear if that awareness stops them from letting stereotypes guide their actions.

"The research is all over the place," said Dodge, the diversity officer.

A 2015 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that implicit bias training, which reminds people of the stereotypes they harbor, could reinforce those stereotypes instead of weakening them.

In another study that compiled data from nearly 500 studies on implicit bias programs, a team of researchers found that "implicit bias can be changed, but the effects are often weak" and that making a person aware of their bias often did not translate into changes in behavior.

Some research suggests that anti-bias training can backfire. When employers such as Starbucks mandate it, employees can become resentful that they are being forced to do something and reject the message.

Nonetheless, Dodge said she was "thrilled" to see more companies conducting anti-bias education.

"There are many questions about what effect it will have," she said. "But if the awareness is coupled with the tools to change how you behave, there could be a marked outcome. We will have to wait and see."

Jaweed Kaleem is The Times' national race and justice correspondent. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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