Can Starbucks' four-hour anti-bias training correct a history of racism in America?

Can Starbucks' four-hour anti-bias training correct a history of racism in America?

Anti-bias training for Starbucks staff deserves praise, but America faces a tough battle to eradicate racial discrimination

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Protesters gather outside the Starbucks store in Philadelphia where two black men were arrested.
Photo: AP

Bias against dark-skinned people has been a problem in the United States for a very long time. Around 60 years ago, black and white students in public schools were segregated. It wasn’t until the Brown vs Board of Education case that the US Supreme Court decided that the practice was a violation of the 14th amendment which addresses equality among citizens, and was therefore unconstitutional.

During the trial, a psychological test played a significant role in highlighting the detrimental effects faced by black children under segregation.

In the simple yet iconic test, dark- and light-coloured dolls were given to a group of children aged between three and seven. They classified the dolls as “nice” or “bad”, and had to identify the one that looked like them. The researchers observed that most of them preferred to play with the light-coloured doll and said positive things about it.

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The black children, having classified the dark-coloured doll as “bad”, often refused to identify it as the one that looked like them. This disturbing observation led the researchers to conclude that segregation caused black children to suffer from internalised racism.

Even though it is now against the law to discriminate against someone based on their race, religion, or background, such incidents still occur frequently, as seen in the cases of police brutality against black Americans. In April, two black men were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia for not ordering anything when they were, in fact, waiting for a third person to arrive.

This incident kick-started mandatory anti-bias training for Starbucks staff on May 29. A total of 8,000 stores across the country were closed that day for four hours, with the training session hoping to address such biases through watching documentaries and holding discussions. Some employees found that there were shortcomings in the training material titled “The Third Place: Our Commitment, Renewed”. They said it did not tackle the discrimination faced by non-blacks, such as Hispanic or Muslim customers.

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While Starbucks’ effort has to be appreciated, is it enough? Mandatory training can be ineffective when the material is too hypothetical or theoretical.

What’s more, “forced” training for staff who “dislike” black Americans might in fact bring the opposite effect. After all, actions speak louder than words. The long-term effects of the “conversation and learning session on racial bias”, as Starbucks put it, have yet to be seen and it is difficult to know whether the employees really learned anything over just four hours.

While the accomplishments of movies such as Moonlight, which has an all-black cast, and Black Panther, which celebrates African culture, are heart-warming, it is still important to recognise that Academy Awards and box-office success do not eradicate racial discrimination.

There is still a long way to go before we can all claim that equality has been achieved.

Edited by M. J. Premaratne and Ginny Wong 

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Is US equal to the task?

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