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What the Starbucks incident tells us about implicit bias

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The word “implicit bias” or some variation of it has been used by Starbuck’s CEO, the city’s police commissioner, its mayor, NAACP and outraged community members after the two were escorted from the coffee shop in handcuffs.

On Thursday, two men had asked to use the restroom at Starbucks, but were told that the bathrooms are for customers only. They occupied a table without making a purchase and a manager called the police after the men declined to leave the premises because, they said they were waiting for an acquaintance. They were escorted out by police, but were not charged with a crime. A manager who called the police, is no longer working at the store, Starbucks said Monday.

Implicit bias is the automatic associations people have in their minds about groups of people, including stereotypes. It forms automatically and unintentionally, but results in attitudes, behaviors or actions that are prejudiced for or against a person or a group of people.

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“The nature of implicit bias is such that you cannot subjectively experience when it’s influencing you,” said Jack Glaser, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

In policing, implicit bias causes some groups to receive undeserved suspicion while other groups are presumed innocent, according to the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, a project that was funded by the Department of Justice in 2014.

And studies have shown that implicit bias contributes to “shooter bias,” which is “the tendency for police to shoot unarmed black suspects more often than white ones — as well as the frequency of police stops for members of minority groups,” according to the group.

Implicit bias can be insidious with deadly consequences, the NAACP said, listing recent examples of the police shooting of Stephon Clark and Saheed Vassell.

“The Starbucks situation provides dangerous insight regarding the failure of our nation to take implicit bias seriously,” said the group’s president and CEO Derrick Johnson in a statement. “We refuse to believe that our unconscious bias –the racism we are often unaware of—can and does make its way into our actions and policies.”

Implicit bias is universal, so it’s not only about the biases of officers, but those of the people calling police, Glaser said.

“Police officers are not the only one deciding who get subjected to policing,” he said. “And so when people are calling in with a complaint, that’s influenced by their racial bias — the stereotype that causes them to regard a black person with greater suspicion.”

Unconscious or implicit bias training

In the aftermath of the Starbucks incident, city leaders are demanding Starbucks engage in diversity and inclusion training and sensitivity training for all workers.

Anger has also been directed at the Philadelphia police officers for arresting the two men.

The city’s police commissioner Richard Ross said Saturday that its commanders receive implicit bias training. Also, all new police recruits visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, because “we want them to know about the atrocities that were in fact, committed by policing around the world,” he said.

“As an African-American man, I am very aware of implicit bias,” he said in a Facebook video posted Saturday. “We are committed to fair and unbiased policing. Anything less than that will not be tolerated in this department.”

Law enforcement agencies and companies have adopted bias training, but programs can vary.

Glaser, whose primary research interest is in stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination, says he hasn’t seen evidence to suggest that implicit bias training reduces discriminatory behavior in police departments and other institutions.

After training, some people say they’ll try harder, and it’s also possible that they could use strategies and be more vigilant about overriding their biases.

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“But when they’re busy doing their job, they’re distracted. The biases are still going to be operative and influence them unless you change the practices and the policies,” Glaser said.

“The bottom line is we don’t know how to change the biases in a meaningful, lasting way, because they’re …the way we think normally and they’re based on years of exposure. So in the absence of being able to change them, we need to change the way people make decisions and the way that they act.”

This could involve changing general practices — such as how ending New York’s stop-and-frisk policy reduced the number of minorities subjected to unnecessary stops, he said. Glaser suggested that Starbucks could employ prescriptive rules on how to handle someone believed to be loitering, with clear rules what to do in those circumstances when there’s no danger.

“It’s more a matter of changing the general practices, so that it’s less likely to happen in the first place,” he said.



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