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A Starbucks grande plan for reducing racism 

Guest columnist John Klofas is professor of criminal justice at RIT. Mary Anna Towler's Urban Journal is on break and returns next week.

On May 29, 8,000 company owned Starbucks across the country will close for an afternoon, and about 175,000 baristas will participate in what CEO Kevin Johnson described as racial bias training.

This caffeine-free interlude for many of us is the result of the outcry over arrests of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks on April 12th. The two men, who were waiting for a friend, had bought nothing and wanted to use the restroom. The arrest was captured on a video, which went viral when it was posted. Some of the coffee shop’s staff also noted that such disparities were not uncommon.

“Implicit bias training” is the centerpiece of the company’s plan. Recently, though, Starbucks executive chairman, Howard Schultz, added a change in policy and announced: "We don't want to become a public bathroom, but we're going to make the right decision 100 percent of the time and give people the key."

The main idea behind implicit bias training is that cultural conditioning pushes us toward stereotypes that affect our behavior, even though there is no intention or even awareness of it. In short, we can all lean toward racism even though we may be careful and try to avoid it. The theory and research behind the training are solid but its effectiveness is less clear.

The notion of hidden bias, and the need to recognize it and change it, has been widely embraced in the business world. Starbucks is about to join companies like Facebook, Google, and Coca Cola in teaching its employees how to protect themselves from their own prejudices.

But while self-analysis may help change employees, it may not help change the company. The change in policy acknowledges that. In fact, the focus on individuals might even have a downside. It is one thing to search our own souls for hidden bias, but that could mean seeing the world as a compilation of the unconscious biases of others. Accepting as fact that all of our transgressions are unintentional may be comforting.

That might help make the otherwise intolerable seem merely unpleasant. Wildly disparate educational outcomes, unfair housing practices, mass incarceration and other outcomes of historical racism endure. If our biases are not intentional, tolerance in the face of injustice may seem acceptable.

But if navel gazing alone won’t fix things, perhaps corporate policy change will. In this case, however, the big question is who will stand guard between this new golden key and the public bathroom that the company fears? That will be the assistant manager. And, of course, with great power comes great responsibility. Why have a key if you can’t decide who uses it?

Race may not figure into it. That much seems clear. But who will this bulwark against the public bathroom find unworthy: the impoverished, the homeless, transgender people, the undocumented? What documentation will be required now that it cannot be a receipt? And now that a purchase is unnecessary, will a receipt continue to trump all other statuses?

Progress on civil rights has not depended simply on decrying racism or understanding our implicit biases. It also has not depended on the good intentions of corporations. Progress has come by recognizing basic human rights and by enforcing sanctions for violations of them. While these battles may rage on even today, enforcing the law has been the course taken in critical areas such as voting rights and housing discrimination.

State governments have declared public urination to be a crime, and at the same time they charter corporations whose profits depend on serving the public. How, then, can the most basic needs of all human beings not achieve official recognition? Maybe real change needs to come in Venti or Trenta size.

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