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Why Starbucks’s Bias Training, Despite Skepticism, Is an Important Start

Protestors demonstrate outside a Center City Starbucks on April 15, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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Protestors demonstrate outside a Center City Starbucks on April 15, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Starbucks will temporarily shut 8,000 stores for four hours Tuesday afternoon to conduct racial bias training for its employees. It follows an incident in Philadelphia last month in which two black men were arrested simply for waiting in a store.

What would seem like a positive step forward is already, perhaps predictably, being criticized.

Starbucks's bias training, according to T.J. Legacy-Cole, a political organizer in Orlando, is "a self-righteous and disingenuous public-relations stunt to glorify a white-owned corporation for making a feeble attempt to combat systemic racism without investing in the communities or people most affected by its oppression."

Robert L. Woodson Sr. of the Woodson Center, a community development organization, wrote that the effort was a form of virtue signaling: "It's easy to see who benefits from this kind of response: The consultants who devise and conduct sensitivity-training sessions."

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And the griping goes on, with some going so far as to speculate that the training program could even be counterproductive.

There is undoubtedly a public relations aspect to this. Starbucks wants to polish its image as an inclusive, progressive company.

But what other American company do you know that is spending tens of millions of dollars to try to begin a discussion about race at such a scale and in such a public way?

Having spoken with senior executives at many large American companies, I found it hard to find one that has taken on the issue of race so directly, with so many employees. Other corporations have programs to improve race relations and have spent money on diversity programs, especially for those in the senior ranks. Some, including Facebook and Google, have included implicit bias training. But few, if any, have taken as sweeping an approach as Starbucks will on Tuesday.

The National Football League, for example, took the opposite approach: It set rules last week aimed at keeping any conversation about race or social justice far from its fields.

Walmart has some form of racial bias training for its managers, but you've never seen it close its stores to work on that training or take such a public stance, despite racial bias incidents caught on video.

Will Starbucks' effort work? The critics say it's laughable to think that racial bias will end after a four-hour afternoon training session.

They're right. But that's not the way to measure it.

The training program, if it is effective, will start a dialogue among some 175,000 employees. The hope is that they will continue the conversation in stores, at home and among their family and friends for days, weeks and months, multiplying the impact.

That's called a start. And if the program is well received, it could give license to other companies to wade into a historically sensitive issue.

Starbucks has tried to have this conversation before: In 2015, it encouraged baristas to write "Race Together" on coffee cups and to talk with customers about race. The effort failed before it ever got off the ground. It was criticized as being everything from too superficial to too deep. "Honest to God, if you start to engage me in a race conversation before I've had my morning coffee, it will not end well," the late PBS NewsHour anchor Gwen Ifill wrote on Twitter.

The Philadelphia debacle — in which a Starbucks manager called the police on two African-American men who were waiting in the store — reflects a broader problem that exists all over the country. The sociologist Elijah Anderson has written about places he calls "white spaces," which African-Americans perceive "to be informally 'off limits' for people like them."

The incident clearly rattled Starbucks' leadership. If nothing else, it was an ugly public image for a company that prides itself on showcasing its inclusive values.

Howard Schultz, the company's chairman, and Kevin Johnson, its chief executive, soon went on an apology tour. Some waved it off as a desperate attempt to defuse a P.R. nightmare. Others applauded it as a textbook example of how to handle a corporate crisis.

Mr. Schultz and Mr. Johnson decided they needed to do more than apologize. Starbucks devised the training program with input from an assortment of leaders: Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (and a cousin of Gwen's); Heather C. McGhee, president of the public policy organization Demos; and former Attorney General Eric H. Holder, among others. Starbucks' initiative could take a small but noticeable bite out of the company's fiscal third-quarter profit, which last year came in at just over $1 billion.

The seminars will involve groups of about four employees being guided by an interactive iPad workbook, featuring videos from Mr. Johnson, Mr. Schultz and the rapper Common. Staff will also watch a documentary short by Stanley Nelson Jr., the Emmy-winning filmmaker. A series of conversation-starters are included in separate worksheets.

Starbucks also changed its policy, announcing that "any customer is welcome to use Starbucks spaces, including our restrooms, cafes and patios, regardless of whether they make a purchase."

Mr. Schultz has always talked about Starbucks as the "third place" — a cultural meeting ground between home and work. The company promotes itself as having an identity defined by inclusion, so much so that, after President Trump's executive order barring immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, Starbucks announced that it would hire 10,000 refugees at it stores around the world by 2022.

Of course, it is possible that Starbuck's training program could lead to bruised feelings, tears and fighting among employees.

But whatever happens, someone always has to go first.

In 1953, a year before Brown v. Board of Education, I.B.M.'s chief executive, Thomas Watson Jr., wrote a letter describing a commitment to nondiscrimination. He was in the process of building factories in North Carolina and Kentucky, and he wanted to integrate the work force. "It is the policy of this organization to hire people who have the personality, talent and background necessary to fill a given job, regardless of race, color or creed," he wrote.

The document has become known as IBM Policy Letter #4.

Corporate America has come a long way since that letter was written. Clearly, there's a lot more to be done.