On Starbucks: Looking Beyond Implicit Bias Training to Systemic Solutions [OP-ED]

By Glenn Harris May 29, 2018

Today (May 29), Starbucks is closing more than 8,000 stores for an afternoon while nearly 175,000 employees undergo training meant to address demonstrated racial bias. But what follows the training is even more important.

The arrest of Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson for simply existing as Black men at one of the coffee retailer’s Philadelphia locations last month is far from an isolated incident. Rather, the display of racism that drove Starbucks to respond is emblematic of the prejudice that people of color in this country face on every day.

Whether hosting a family cookout, shopping for a prom outfit, or sleeping in a student common area, the criminalization of Black and Brown people is a daily reality that can often lead to tragic results. This reality is bigger than Starbucks. It’s a national crisis. And all of us, including Starbucks, have a role to play in addressing it.

However it’s important to recognize that addressing racial bias can’t happen overnight. This work isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. And like a marathon, it requires commitment, time and investment. But the return is worth it—creating a more fair and unbiased workplace is beneficial for everyone.

It’s essential that implicit bias trainings aren’t touted as a golden cure for a society that is structured to drive inequitable outcomes and experiences for people of color. Implicit bias training is important, but it doesn’t result in systemic change. At best, bias trainings are a stepping stone to understanding how systems negatively impact people of color. At worst, they perpetuate the misunderstanding that addressing implicit racial bias lands solely on the shoulders of individuals.

Focusing on individual behavior is an important step, but is insufficient if what we want is to truly transform the status quo. Fixing a crack in the floor is futile if the house was built on an uneven foundation—we must fix both. When it comes to race, it’s not just about biased individuals; it’s about biased systems. Our workplaces are part of that system, and systemic problems require systemic solutions.

Systemic solutions require companies like Starbucks to examine the full breadth and depth of the negative outcomes experienced by both their customers and employees of color. For example, Race Forward knows from working with the restaurant industry that there are generally more people of color in the back-of-houseworking as dishwashers, prep cooks and in other low-paying roles—while White staff are more likely to be in the front, earning higher wages as servers, bartenders and hosts. We also know that this racial segregation didn’t just happen on its own. There is a system that continually drives this reality, and it wasn’t created by any one individual. As a result, the restaurants we work with are figuring out how to address systemic inequity by examining their hiring and promotional policies and practices.

Starbucks closing its stores for racial bias training is a moment that doesn’t come often, but it also can’t be a singular moment. Tackling implicit bias is a critical step for any institution working to combat racism. But no single intervention is ever enough in a company this big, and dismantling racism requires more than one afternoon of training. Starbucks must also explore and address how racism plays out across the company, whether intentional or not. It’s about transforming the company’s workplace culture and examining the full scope of its internal and external policiesfrom the customer experience, to who gets promoted, to the demographics of the executive leadership.

Transforming the culture of any institution is complex and rigorous work, and we should all be interested in how companies of Starbucks’ scale address racism. The good news is that there is a growing movement of institutionsfrom government agencies to charitable foundations to nonprofit organizationsthat are committed over the long term to advancing solutions that combat racism. Blossoming from these efforts is an expanding body of effective strategies to create and sustain racial equity. Starbucks has the opportunity to join this movement and lead other companies of its size in embracing their responsibility to address racism in this country. Here’s hoping company leadership embraces it.

Glenn Harris has more than 25 years of experience training organizations both large and small on advancing racial equity. He is president of the new Race Forward, a national nonprofit that transforms policy, institutions and culture to advance racial justice and publishes Colorlines. Follow Glenn on Twitter.