Did Starbucks racial bias training work? Join me to find out | Ronnie Polaneczky

A sign advising that a Starbucks is closed for staff training.

On Tuesday, as 175,000-plus Starbucks employees were undergoing anti-racial-bias training at 8,000 Starbucks stores across America, two of the company’s bigwigs met with journalists at the Inquirer and Daily News to tell us about the endeavor.

I was one of them, and by the end of the interview,  I had the strangest thought:

If handled right, the Starbucks debacle has the potential to do for America what Barack Obama’s Beer Summit never could: Bring people of all ethnicities together to figure out how to talk to one another.

Not at one another. Not over one another’s shouts. Not from a place of high-and-mighty moral authority or down-and-dirty self-righteousness.

And certainly not in any place as rarefied as the White House Rose Garden, where in 2009 Obama convened that “Beer Summit” with black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and white Cambridge police officer James Crowley.

Two weeks earlier, you may recall, Gates had returned home from a trip abroad to find his front door jammed. He and his taxi driver forced the door open. A few minutes later, Crowley was on the scene. A neighbor had reported a possible break-in at Gates’ home, not knowing that Gates was the owner forcing the door.

A confrontation ensued, Gates was charged with disorderly conduct and the incident went viral as yet another example of fraught relations between police and minorities.

That’s when Obama invited both men to the White House for a chat over beer about race, class, respect, and police authority. Gates and Crowley later said the meeting  – dubbed the Beer Summit – was a genial and positive exchange.

But the sit-down was a lost opportunity for the public.

Yes, we saw a couple of photos of the get-together, but we weren’t privy to what was said. We didn’t get to hear Gates and Crowley, now with cool heads, speak calmly, vulnerably, and thoughtfully about the day of the arrest. Nor did we get a chance to crawl inside both men’s heads and hear what it is like simply to be them.

Then again, this was a private meeting and the Rose Garden is not a “third place.” The term refers to a place, aside from home and work, where one feels a warm, welcoming sense of belonging. Churches, cafes, libraries, parks, barbershops, corner stores, and salons, for example, can be considered third places.

In their interview Tuesday, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson and COO Rosalind Brewer repeatedly stressed that Starbucks was founded to be a “third place,” which is why what happened inside a Philly Starbucks in April was so painful.

Camera icon DAVID SWANSON
 Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson and COO Rosalind G. Brewer visit Philadelphia

And that’s why Starbucks’ response could bring about a sea change that the equally infamous Beer Summit never could.

First of all, Starbucks’ reaction to the arrests (and quick release) of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson was perfect. It immediately denounced the employee’s action and soon announced massive, company-wide training to help employees learn about racial bias.

The fact that Starbucks closed 8,000 of their stores to do so (at a company cost of “tens of millions of dollars”) is what has me feeling so intrigued.

What might be the impact on America if 175,000 men and women employed in 8,000 Starbucks bring their new understanding of bias to their interactions with the public? How might that trickle down to the millions of people who interact with staff on a daily basis? How might that spread into the bigger world?

Call me a cockeyed optimist, but there is nothing cockeyed about wanting to optimize a big moment to its best outcome. And I think this moment has legs.

Starbucks has just posted online the full curriculum of its antibias training, for free use by anyone moved to have honest, respectful, and compassionate conversations with those of different races.

I can easily envision the curriculum being shared inside all the “third places” where Americans generally feel welcome regardless of all the things that can so easily keep us apart — race, class, gender. (Reading Market is one of my favorite third places.)

For years now, people have called for “a conversation about race,” often after violence or injustice.  Then there’s silence.  Maybe this further conversation never happens because there is never a formal outline for how to have it.

One where we’d talk. Others would listen. Then others would talk. And we’d listen. All of it unmitigated by bite-size Twitter quips, one-sided Facebook monologues, or prettied-up Instagram posts.

And then we’d move beyond race, because our biases go way beyond skin color. We routinely pigeonhole the elderly and people with disabilities, millennials and smokers, middle-aged white guys and brand-new immigrants. The list goes on and on.

Only when the ignorance hits the fan do we find out how biased we are (Roseanne, are you listening?).

Camera icon JACQUELINE LARMA
The experience of Rashon Nelson (left) and Donte Robinson prompted the training that closed 8,000 Starbucks stores.

That means all of us, says Alexis McGill Johnson, cofounder of the Perception Institute, a nonprofit think tank that works to reduce bias and discrimination and to promote belonging. The institute helped create Tuesday’s Starbucks training.

Polls show that 89 percent of Americans believe themselves to be fair and honest, says McGill Johnson, yet we continue to get caught in situations where our actions are out of sync with the values we’re so proud of.

That’s because there are two kinds of bias – explicit, which we’re conscious of, and implicit, which we’re not.

“Just learning about bias is not enough,” she says. “We’ve got to become aware of what we’re not aware of.”

Such an exercise is too long to undertake in a newspaper column. But it’s not too long to be undertaken in a welcoming third place, using thoughtful curriculum created by people who’ve thought deeply about this.

I’d like to get to the bottom of my own biases, using the Starbucks curriculum.  Want to join me?   I’m scheduling a session with two dozen readers, to spend a few hours testing the Starbucks curriculum. It will be here at 801 Market St. on Tuesday, June 19. Email me at polaner@phillynews.com and tell me why you want to join.

Let’s seize a moment to strengthen a movement. I can’t promise I’ll serve beer. But the cups of coffee will be bottomless … though they won’t necessarily be from Starbucks.