Starbucks, Us, and Them

I didn’t know you could trespass in Starbucks. People bring their laptops there. People hold meetings there. One of my friends spent two months studying for the bar exam there. “Sit and stay awhile” embodies Starbucks’ business model. Even those of us who don’t drink tall half-caff soy lattes at 120 degrees know that Starbucks is a place where people come and stay. The idea of overstaying your welcome at Starbucks is absurd. At least McDonald’s warns you that you have 20 minutes to eat.

But then two Black men walked into a Starbucks. The manager said they needed to be paying customers to use the bathroom (a problem I’ve never encountered). They thought nothing of it and sat down to wait for the third member of their party. As they waited, the manager called police to complain that they were trespassing. Someone recorded the incident. Members of the public threatened to protest. In response to the bad press, Starbucks closed 8,000 stores for one day to train its employees about unconscious biases, losing about $12 million in the process. That was a brilliant public relations move.

But a one-day training will lose to millions of years of evolution.

Blink your eyes. That’s about how long it takes for your brain to categorize someone by social status, gender, or race. Even with few clues, we easily group people into “Us” and “Them.” This process starts early – infants learn to recognize faces that are the same race as their guardians (including different-race adoptive parents) easier than faces of other races. By age four, kids group people by race and gender. As long as the categories seem important, our brains can group people according to the weakest of connections, turning meaningless attributes into meaningful differences.

Dividing people into Us and Them is not a conscious process. It is emotional and automatic. When we meet a new person for the first time, we experience intuition and emotions. Then, we devise justifications for our feelings, convincing ourselves that we rationally thought out why we feel the way we do toward an individual or group. In the meantime, whether we classify someone as “Us” or “Them” influences how we act toward that person.

How do you know when someone is one of “Us?” Is the chicken and rice dish common to your group tastier than other kinds of chicken and rice dishes? Would you and others you know acoustic guitar, piano, horns, or a’cappella vocals to lead your favorite version of Yesterday? Do the pundits you watch on television have the best solutions for social problems? If you answer yes to any of these, then you’ll likely consider others who agree with you an “Us.” If you answer no, then you’ve probably grouped others who disagree with you as “Them.” Of course, there are multiple groups we can pull “Uses” from – home, school, work, religious group, Yankee fans, soccer moms – and while some overlap, others have nothing to do with each other.

Simply put, we think better of “Uses” than we do of “Thems.” We treat “Uses” better, too. Members of our group are honest and trustworthy. Members of their group are threatening and angry. We are loyal to members of our group, playing favorites with them and expecting the same in return. We empathize with our group members, treating members of our group as individuals rather than as part of a simple, homogenous mass of people. Indeed, elites in Ancient Rome, Imperial China, Medieval England, and the antebellum South all viewed slaves as “simple, childlike, and incapable of independence.”

It is worth noting again that our brains divide people into “Us” and “Them” automatically, before we are aware that it’s happening, and in absence of bad intent. A one-day training isn’t going to stop this process. But perhaps it doesn’t have to.

Starbucks undertook the training on the idea that our unconscious preferences dictate our conscious actions. Scientists aren’t quite sure this is the case. Our brains take action not only in the short time it takes to register a preference, but after a few hundred more milliseconds (note – we still haven’t reached one second yet) other parts of the brain that dampen our threat response start to activate. This continuing development is part of the reason six-year olds will openly state their preferences about who they like to spend time with, but ten-year olds are more careful about what feelings they share. People are more likely express unconscious racial prejudices if they have poor frontal executive control (executive functions are processes that help us control behavior) or if they have just spent their executive resources.

Indeed, the question of whether one can predict behavior based on unconscious racial preferences has been the subject of a 12-year debate between scientists. At issue is Harvard’s Implicit Association Test. This tool tests one’s reaction times between pairs of words. People generally have shorter reaction times between words they associate with one another (like ice cream and yummy) and longer reaction times between words they don’t associate with one another (like tires and yummy). Over many iterations, the test is said to show one’s unconscious preferences. For many people, the test has become an easy way to determine how racist they are on the inside, and by extension how racist our society is. Applied to Starbucks, this means that the manager was implicitly biased against the two gentlemen, and acting on that bias, proceeded to call the police. Since the problem is simple and straightforward, so is the solution – just train people out of it and there will be fewer incidents.

But science is hard. Scientists (except those implicitly biased in favor of their own research) consider ideas to be true only if different people can repeat the same test under similar conditions and get the same results. In the case of the IAT, much of this work does not live up to scientific standards that would allow most scientists to say that this tool accurately predicts human behavior. As a result, we know that people treat others they consider part of an out-group worse than members of an in-group, but we don’t have a way to measure it. Additionally, as far as I can tell, there’s no evidence that we know how to do what’s being proposed in the media and by Starbucks – determine whether someone held an unconscious preference because of their actions.

Besides, simply telling people that they have unconscious biases against people of other races and that they are likely to act in a racist manner because of it robs a person of agency. After all, if this is something I can’t change, why would I try? Perhaps Starbucks could create a more robust training, in coordination with police and psychologists, to help its employees determine which customers are potential threats. This way, a future manager might not consider that two people sitting at a table are trespassing. Or, Starbucks could stop letting people hang out in its shops…

Works Referenced

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