One week ago, two African American men were handcuffed and removed by police officers from a Center City Philadelphia Starbucks for what authorities claim was loitering.

The African American males were told by the manager that they needed to order something to be allowed to remain in Starbucks. Earlier this year a similar incident took place in a Torrance Starbucks. Again it involved an African American.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson has vowed to close more than 8,000 Starbuck franchises on May 29 to allow staff members and store management participate in training programs that educate individuals on “unconscious bias.”

Several professionals believe that unconscious bias is not the issue here. Rather, the issue they believe is an innate fear of the African American male which led to the incidents in Philadelphia and in Torrance.

Role of ‘unconscious bias’

In “Black Child,” a 1978 book by Phyllis Harrison-Ross M.D., she describes an interview with a pregnant White female, who one day while riding an elevator encountered an African American male. Being on the elevator with just the two of them reportedly resulted in the woman being so anxious that her uterus began to contract. Dr. Harrison-Ross said the tension from the fear the woman experienced would likely impact the unborn fetus who, years later, may later develop a fear of African Americans.

However, that was only a personal theory until recently when research conducted by Jacek Debiec, a Polish-born psychiatrist-neuroscientist with the University of Michigan, proved that there is clinical evidence that fear is transmitted across generations, although scientists know little about how the transmission occurs.

What is known is that it involves the lateral amygdala—an area that detects and plans response to threats. The amygdala is a small nugget of the brain nestled in the medial temporal lobe.

“A fetus is capable of detecting smell and taste and when a pregnant woman is scared the fetus will smell their mother’s fear,” according to the University of Michigan report. “Mothers teach babies their own fears by producing ‘alarm’ odors. If the pregnant female described by Harrison-Ross fears continue into infancy, there is a strong possibility that the infant will fear African American males. Infants can learn from their mothers about potential environmental threats before their sensory and motor development allows them a comprehensive exploration of their surrounding environment.”

Debiec recalls working with the adult children of Holocaust survivors who experienced nightmares, avoidance instincts and flashbacks related to traumatic experiences they never had themselves. While they would have learned about the Holocaust from their parents, this deeply ingrained fear suggests something more at work, he said.

Fear of the ‘Black male thug’

Dan Fessler, Ph.D., an anthropologist and head of the UCLA Center for Behavior, Evolution and Culture, believes irresponsible statements like this further paint a picture of the “Black male thug,” and does more harm in creating a picture of negativity regarding African American males. He believes this type of rhetoric worked to the advantage of the defense team in the George Zimmerman murder trial.

Fessler is conducting research partially funded by the U.S. Air Force dealing with assessing national threats. Participants are shown images of a set of hands holding objects such as caulking guns, power drills, a large saw and a handgun. Even though the hands belongs to the same person, when they were of a lighter complexion (non-Black), viewers report that the hands holding the gun looked larger in photographs.

However, when a participant was shown an image of hands belonging to a person of African descent holding a drill, people said the image gave the impression of a more menacing individual than the image of lighter-complexioned person holding a gun, even though the lighter-complexioned hands were larger.

All three researchers, Ross, Debic and Fessler, are pessimistic about any type of training involving racial sensitivity, based on their research. They believe the Starbucks manager had racially profiled the two African Americans in Philadelphia and the one African American in Torrance.  

Instilling cultural sensitivity

Daniel Mangrum, who works in the field of “loss prevention,” believes the scrutinizing African American males could be the result of Starbucks staff associating Blacks with theft. According to Mangrum, quite a number of laptops and other electronic devices belonging to patrons have been stolen from Starbucks and in relation to food products such as artisan sandwiches are frequently stolen.

This scenario, according to researchers, creates a closed-door policy in regard to African Americans using Starbucks restrooms and enforcing a anti-loitering policy implemented by frustrated employees which, itself, may result in racial profiling. Mangrum believes the action of racial profiling is not the  spirit of Starbucks corporate management.

Starbucks line staff  may leave restroom doors unlocked or add key code entries if they feel the store is more at risk for criminal behavior. A store in the same area of Philadelphia experienced an armed robbery recently, according to Mangrum.

Mangrum also believes the other issue could have been sanitation. He suggests I visit “Starbucks Gossip” website, and view the following posts describing restroom usage.

The website has posts with the following:

—“I have personally cleaned up almost every humanly fluid and plenty that didn’t seem human .”

—“I am continually amazed by what people will do when given a few square feet of privacy.”

— “Why do you want to have sex in a bathroom? I think the toilet would be kind of a mood killer.”

Additional posts describe drug use and other nefarious activities.

Avoiding ‘knee-jerk’ reaction

Nedra Papion, a Starbucks barista in Center City, said that a nearby franchise was robbed earlier and the manager was a female. Papion believes that the knee-jerk reaction of calling the Philadelphia Police Department may have been the result may of subconscious fear of the two African American males that were waiting for their friend, due to the recent robbery in the area.

In regards to refusing the use of the Starbuck restroom, a Philadelphia police sergeant was once told he could not use the restroom at the same Starbucks because he is not a paying customer. The officer asked twice, but was was denied the key code to access the restroom and the two got into a brief—but heated—verbal exchange. The same situation took place in Arizona with a pregnant woman and, according to Papion, they were both White. The pregnant female was told to use the restroom at an adjacent Fry’s Electronics. She was also told to leave because police had been called.

According to California State University Economic Professor Seiji Steimetz, part of Starbucks’ strategy is actually premised on making restrooms available, so customers can stop, buy coffee, sit, use the facilities, buy something, use the facilities again, and repeat the coffee shop experience. Of course some people wish to use the restroom only, but that’s only a problem for the poor folks who have to clean up unnatural messes and wait on the lines.

It’s not always clear whether sitting in a Starbucks or using a Starbucks restroom without purchasing any items is allowed. A company spokesperson said Starbucks does not have a broad policy prohibiting people from using restrooms (or entering the lavatory for free), thereby allowing individual stores to set their own policies. Population density supposedly plays a role because it is easier for people to wait unnoticed inside a more crowded Starbucks in a place like New York City without paying than it would be in more sparsely populated locations where policies can be enforced more strictly.

The unfortunate reality is that as long as the fear of African American men—warranted or unwarranted—remains prevalent in global society, incidences such as the Starbucks incident will continue to occur.

There is no simple way to resolve the challenge of unconscious bias. In fact, in many cases it is not possible to eliminate it. However, we can often mitigate the impact of bias by employing a thoughtful, systemic approach that focuses on the four interventions: introducing the right kind of education, installing priming techniques, modifying structures and systems, and building the appropriate accountability measures. In this way, Starbucks and other retail outlets may be able to create organizational systems that support people in being more aware of their decision-making and be more inclusive in their behavior.