Starbucks closes thousands of stores for racial bias training

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Coffee chain Starbucks has closed more than 8,000 stores in the United States to train around 175,000 employees against racial bias.

The move comes after the April 12 arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks, which sparked outrage, protests and calls for boycott.

Outside the same store on Tuesday afternoon, some passersby questioned if the exercise would really solve underlying issues of racial bias.

“Anti-bias trainings don’t cover the full scope of complexity when it comes to addressing white supremacy,” one of them told Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo, reporting from Philadelphia, said that critics argue that “one day of racial bias training without any sort of measurable benchmarks is simply not enough”.

He added that the company, which has 25,000 coffee shops in 70 countries, promised to integrate further trainings in the US and around the world. 

“We realise that four hours of training is not going to solve racial inequity in America or anyone coming into our stores who may have a problem,” Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz said in an interview with CNN.

“But we have to start the conversation.”

‘Necessary but has to continue’

Starbucks employees watched a film from documentary maker Stanley Nelson on African American history and the civil rights struggle, before discussing in groups their own experience of racial discrimination.

The curriculum, to be made available at a later date, was drawn up in consultation with US President Barack Obama’s former attorney general Eric Holder and civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, among others.

Estimated to cost Starbucks $12m to $14m in lost sales, the exercise was criticised by some as virtue signaling, but has been cautiously welcomed by black officials and activists.

“It’s something that’s necessary and it’s a good place to start, but the main issue here is that it has to continue and keep evolving,” Doug Sloan, analyst and senior activist at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a civil rights group in the US, told Al Jazeera.

Starbucks announced the training on April 17 as it battled to contain outrage over the arrest of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, apologising and adopting an open bathroom policy to non-paying customers.

After Nelson and Robinson stepped into the cafe, one of them asked to use the toilet while waiting for a third person to arrive for a business meeting.

Staff refused, on the grounds that he was not a customer. After the pair sat down to wait, the manager called the police.

A video that went viral showed uniformed officers questioning then handcuffing the two men, who put up no resistance, while a white client repeatedly asks an officer, “What’d they do? What’d they do?”

But US social networks have been rocked by a slew of other recent examples of racial discrimination going viral. A student called the police in May when a black graduate student at Yale University fell asleep in a common room.

Earlier this month, a 22-year-old black man was choked by police at a Waffle House in North Carolina after taking his sister to prom, the fourth incident at outlets of the restaurant to attract national attention in less than two weeks.

Other large companies have also adopted racial bias training, albeit with less fanfare. Target introduced its first unconscious bias sessions in 2017, which it says are being rolled out across the company.

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