In the wake of the latest viral video where two men were apparently arrested for nothing more than “waiting for a friend while black,” Starbucks has announced that it will close all its U.S. stores on May 29 so that nearly 175,000 of its employees can undergo a “training program designed to address implicit bias.”
It is a nice gesture, but the problem is not merely implicit bias; it is racism. And it is not going to be addressed by more training and education from diversity experts.
It requires accountability.
When we speak of implicit bias, we are referring to what psychologists characterize as cognitive “mind bugs,” or unconscious stereotypes. We manifest implicit bias without knowing it — through averting our eyes or smiling less at a person of color.
Implicit bias is real and demands our concern, but it should not be used to explain every racial incident.
The problem with elevating implicit bias into a master narrative for understanding race relations is that it provides us with too easy an out and blinds us to the persistence of the harsher realities of racism. By definition, implicit bias is beyond our conscious control, so we do not need to feel responsible for it. Moreover, everybody has it; and if everybody is to blame, then nobody is ever held accountable.
Coming back to the Starbucks case: There were two distinct but related problems with this incident. First, why did the Starbucks employee feel compelled to call police to come remove two men from the store for “trespassing” when they were not being disruptive and had explained they were waiting for a friend? Second, why did the police respond with massive force (I counted seven officers in the video), handcuff the two men and then arrest them?
There is nothing “implicit” about the bias in these actions. The other patrons in the video did not need “implicit-bias training” to see these actions for what they were: racism. Racism on the part of the employee who called the police, and racism on the part of the police who responded in an unjustifiably aggressive and officious manner.
This incident does not simply reflect the misguided “unconscious stereotypes” held by a few benighted individuals. Rather, it exemplifies the broader systemic and structural problem of using police to enforce racial boundaries and hierarchies in public spaces.
Diversity training is a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry that has been around for decades. It makes people feel good, assuring them, like self-help gurus do, that they are working to become the best nonbiased version of themselves they can be.
Being a “woke” white person is all well and good, but it does not dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, undo voter suppression or redress years of systematic economic dispossession. Diversity management, it turns out, does more to insulate businesses from lawsuits than to increase the representation of minorities in the workforce or reduce the frequencies of incidents such as what occurred at Starbucks.
We see a troubling, if anecdotal, indication of such limitations in the infamous case from the summer of 2015 where a video captured police officer Eric Casebolt brutally subduing a black teenage girl at a Texas pool party. News reports of the incident included the information that he had taken eight hours of diversity training at a local community college and had also taken courses on racial profiling and the use of force.
What is needed is accountability. Accountability for employees who disrespect people because of their race; accountability for police who respond with excessive force and escalate rather than de-escalate a situation because of a person’s race.
What does accountability look like? There is no single answer, but it can take many forms, both individual and structural: e.g., suspension, dismissal, restriction of duties, demotion — and not only for the individuals committing the acts but for those responsible for supervising them.
One thing it doesn’t look like is “training.”
We will never get past these incidents if we keep characterizing them simply as manifestations of implicit bias.
When incidents such as these, and many far worse, keep happening over and over and over again, we must call them by their name: racism. Only then will we be able to marshal the resources collectively as a political community to confront this problem and take the hard actions necessary to make things better.
Jonathan Kahn is James E. Kelley Professor of Law at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. He is the author of “Race on the Brain: What Implicit Bias Gets Wrong About the Struggle for Racial Justice” (Columbia University Press, 2018).