What Is Racial Bias?

June 1, 2018

Imagine this: Your friend asks you to meet him at a cafe. You arrive a few minutes early and grab a seat. Soon, you see police officers walking into the cafe, and they’re headed your way. Because you hadn’t ordered anything, the store manager called the police, and now you’re being arrested.

This scenario might sound like a nightmare, but it really happened to two African American men named Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson. Nelson and Robinson arrived a few minutes early for their business meeting at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While they were waiting, the manager of that Starbucks asked if they needed anything. They said they didn’t. The manager asked them to purchase something or they’d have to leave. They didn’t leave. Soon after, police officers entered the store and arrested them. The manager had called the police because she thought they were planning to cause trouble. Did these men do something that caused the store manager to think they were going to cause trouble, or was it a subconscious bias that led her to call the police?

By Marco Paköeningrat (Starbucks) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Since this incident, Starbucks publicly apologized to Nelson and Robinson and made immediate changes to their store policies, one of which is to allow customers to be in the store and use the bathroom even if they don’t plan on buying anything. In addition, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson shut down 8,000 Starbucks stores on May 29th so that employees could attend racial bias training. What is racial bias? It’s the way people treat other people because of how they look, where they’re from, or how they’re dressed. But can training erase bias? The short answer is no, but knowing how to identify personal bias through training is a good first step. About 175,000 Starbucks employees participated in this four-hour session, which included discussing bias, acting out scenarios that might cause a biased reaction, and practicing more warm and welcoming behaviors.

Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz admitted that “four hours of training is not going to solve racial inequity in America,” so they’re planning to do more and hoping that their efforts help in some small way.

Have you ever experienced racial bias? If you could give Starbucks suggestions regarding how their employees should treat customers, what would you suggest?