Unlearning bias

Polk

Jean and Sam Polk give Starbucks credit for starting an ongoing corporate-wide program to identify and redress bias. They would like to see all corporations and organizations have ongoing racial bias training. (PHOTO BY CLARE HOWARD)

It lasted just minutes, but it reverberated around the country as yet another example of racism in America.
Closely following the unfolding story were long-time NAACP members Jean and Sam Polk. They watched national TV coverage and read newspapers –– all framed with the personal knowledge of their own experiences with racism.

The story the country found riveting started on a Thursday afternoon when two young Black men entered a Starbucks store on 18th and Spruce streets in Philadelphia. A young woman walking in before them asked for the bathroom code and was given the code without ordering anything. However, when the 23-year-old African-American men asked for the code, they were told it was only for paying customers.

They sat down waiting for a real estate investor for a scheduled meeting. Another woman in the coffee shop said later she had been sitting there for several hours without ordering anything, but the two young men were handcuffed and arrested within two minutes on trespassing charges. The real estate investor walked in and corroborated the scheduled meeting, but the men were walked to a squad car and taken to police headquarters.

The Philadelphia police commissioner initially defended his officers. But the mayor of Philadelphia and Starbucks’ chairman condemned the incident. Days later, 8,000 Starbucks coffee shops were closed for several hours in the afternoon, and 175,000 employees participated in diversity training. The company said this initial diversity curriculum is just the beginning, and it pledged to make Starbucks welcoming to all people.

“I give five stars to Starbucks,” Sam Polk said. “Starbucks did an excellent job, and I wish other companies would do the same.”

Starbucks resisted pressure to fire the white store manager who called the police. Starbucks also resisted the traditional PR-marketing ploy to diminish and deflect. The company reacted with stores closing for in-service training (at a cost in lost revenue estimated at $12 million) and by taking out major newspaper ads. Howard Schultz, executive chairman of Starbucks, said the cost was not an expense but an investment in people and values.

The Polks agree with Starbucks: one important way to fight systemic racism is with diversity training.

Sam Polk, 83, recalled a training session when he was working for the city of Peoria. Employees were sent to a session lasting several days held at a conference center out of town. On the first evening during socializing, a white Peoria police officer walked up to Polk and said “I don’t like you, and I don’t like John Gwynn.” Gwynn was then president of the NAACP.

The training involved classes, role reversals, discussions and other activities. Polk remembers one workshop involved role reversals with a Black person playing a white person, a white person playing the role of a Black person. Participants were confronted with a variety of situations.

By Sunday evening on the last day of the training session, that same police officer walked up to Polk and apologized for his earlier confrontation. The officer had learned something. Polk remembers another police officer left the training early because he was so uncomfortable with the discussions.

Polk said constant negative reporting of the Black community gives people a skewed image of Blacks.

Jean Polk, a former school principal in Peoria Public Schools, recalled one of her early jobs when she was 17 was as the first Black female cashier at a Kroger store in Peoria. The NAACP had helped her secure the job. After several days of training, she was put on a cashier.

That was in the 1950s. Customers did not want her ringing up their groceries.

“There would be long lines at the other cash registers, but no one at my cash register,” she said. “So I thought I’d go help the other cashiers bag. Customers told me not to touch their groceries. The manager had to give me another job stocking frozen food.”

She recalls going home at night and crying, but she felt she couldn’t quit because the NAACP wanted her to pave the way for other Blacks.

Sam Polk recalled watching a white police officer call a young Black girl “a bitch.” He did not get involved in the argument but walked to the police station to file a complaint. He was arrested and told he could lose his job. The NAACP stepped in to help him.

“We had good jobs and live here in a nice neighborhood not because we are so smart but because the NAACP worked for change. That’s why we are so devoted to the NAACP,” he said.

The GI Bill after World War II was designed to accommodate Jim Crow segregation, he said, noting that he has never seen a movie depicting D-Day and the invasion of Normandy Beach that showed any of the Black servicemen who were part of that invasion. Documented accounts confirm more than 2,000 African Americans were part of the D-Day invasion.

History needs fact-checking. Everyday assumptions can be based on historical distortions. The education benefits in the G.I. Bill available for white veterans were structured to be inaccessible for most Black veterans.

“Every organization needs diversity training,” said Jean Polk.

That training starts with scholarship.

Portia Adams, associate professor and interim director of the African American Studies Program at Bradley University, studies race and diversity. Her friend David Billings is one of the country’s leading authorities on undoing racism. Adams has participated in dozens of seminars and workshop about undoing racism.

“I learn something new each time,” she said.

She reviewed the curriculum used in the Starbucks training and found it did not include analysis of the specific incident in the Philadelphia shop.

The Starbucks training was very focused on a way to dialogue, but did not specifically analyze what was done and why it was wrong at the Philadelphia store, she said.

She praised the training, noting it might not have been perfect, but it starts a process, and she is watching for the next development.

The two African American men in the Philadelphia Starbucks had been profiled. They did nothing wrong, but police were called because they were black. Profiling is a pernicious vestige of Jim Crow laws. Former President Barack Obama said he has been profiled. Adams recounted a recent incident of profiling while she was driving between Indianapolis and Peoria. A police car pulled along beside her, and the policeman studied her as she drove. He pulled her over and indicated she had failed to use a turn indicator within 200 feet of a turn. He questioned her. He called for backup with a drug-sniffing dog. Her car was searched. After failing to find any drugs, the officer said he was suspicious because Adams was so calm during questioning.

Adams said “I was thinking of Sandra Bland. I was very quiet, and he cited my quietness as criminal.”

She said racism dehumanizes people and holds the country back from real progress. The problem pervades all aspects of life including economic. The minimum wage must become a living wage. That’s typically about $15 an hour. Without that change, people can work full-time and still live in poverty.

“When people are forced to hold three part-time jobs just to survive, it’s hard to be a pleasant, nice person,” Adams said.

Two critical components of undoing racism involve a thorough reexamination and fact-checking of history and changing a culture that reinforces racism, she said.

In response to an inquiry, Starbucks issued this statement:

“Our decision to close stores for racial bias learning and education was sparked by Philadelphia, so we wanted to engage in race first. Over the next months and years, we will go into different forms of bias by adding more learning sessions on understanding bias, inclusion, use of the third place, leadership, among other topics.
Starbucks is also looking forward to attending a convening this summer hosted by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights as we take the next steps toward understanding how to address other forms of bias and how companies can best implement these lessons.

“As we have said, May 29 is one step in a long-term journey. For longer term efforts, Starbucks will also consult with a diverse array of organizations and civil rights experts—including The Anti-Defamation League, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, UnidosUS, Muslim Advocates, and representatives of LGBTQ groups, religious groups, people with disabilities, and others. We will continually assess our progress and remain open to engaging with other groups as merited.”

Clare Howard

Clare Howard is the editor of the Community Word. She can be reached at communityword@yahoo.com



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