On Starbucks, Other Employers, and Racial Bias

While I took my break from the blogging world on the week of Memorial Day, Starbucks had racial bias training for its employees.

The reviews of the racial bias training from the general public were about as mixed as the reviews are for their lattes and cappuccinos. Some thought of this as a necessary step, while others were skeptical as to whether one afternoon of racial bias training would have any impact on individuals.

I will not use this post to review their racial bias training or racial bias training in general, because there are probably hundreds of other sites doing the same. Instead, I’m here to suggest that Starbucks and other employers should not just look at the racial biases of their rank-and-file employees but also at their own leadership’s racial biases. Likewise, we as consumers should look at the biases of not just rank-and-file employees but also at the leadership of companies.

Without looking both outward at employees and inward at the employer’s leadership, one ends up with a company like Starbucks, a company that outwardly gives the façade of attempting to be just but inwardly has its own biases. Those biases are demonstrated through the company’s stunning refusal to open up stores in neighborhoods dominated by people of color (even neighborhoods dominated by people of color that are middle class, such as my neighborhood in Queens). If you doubt me, look at how many Starbucks are in Harlem (in New York City), Chicago’s South Side, Baltimore excluding the parts around the Inner Harbor or Johns Hopkins University, or Philadelphia outside of Center City and the area near the 30th Street Station. Indeed, Starbucks’ bias training feels like a façade for its own biases.

However, I am not here just to pick on Starbucks, because the fact is that Starbucks is not the only large organization guilty of having bias training while having its own biases. For example, Google’s bias training has existed much longer than Starbucks’, yet their demographics demonstrate that there is bias somewhere along the way: their workforce is severely lacking in black and Latino employees, for example. The New York City Public Schools will spend millions in racial bias training for its educators while allowing a school system that is severely segregated. They are just two of numerous employers that have training to try preventing racial bias while continuing to have their own unconscious biases as an organization.

This is not to suggest that the racial bias training should end at these organizations—I am not enough of an expert (yet) on them to give an answer on that. What I am suggesting, however, is that we can’t just look at the racial biases of a barista at Starbucks or a public school teacher in New York City, but also the racial biases of those who decide where to open up Starbucks or those who decide on policies that segregate schools further in New York City. After all, if we fail to look at organizations’ racial biases, from top to bottom, we will find ourselves blind to a significant amount of racial injustice.

IMAG1017
Southeast DC is predominantly black. It is also almost completely lacking in Starbucks, just like many other American neighborhoods where people of color are in the majority. This picture taken by me.

The Ableism of Internet Map Directions

For most of us, it is easy to get transit directions to get from Point A to Point B. You just go onto Google Maps (or maybe Bing or Yahoo Maps), type your starting point, type your destination point, and get directions from there. It seems simple enough.

Simple enough for able-bodied people.

If you are wheelchair-bound, or told by your doctor or your own body to try avoiding stairs, obtaining directions are not that simple for one reason—to my knowledge, not a single internet map provider gives people an opportunity to select wheelchair-friendly directions.

The problem is especially noticeable in my hometown of New York City, where the subway system is so unfriendly to wheelchairs that it is in the midst of lawsuits right now. Given the lack of wheelchair access with the subways in New York, and with transit in many parts of the world, there is a severe need for wheelchair-friendly directions.

Yet, not a single internet map provider gives you the opportunity to plan out wheelchair-friendly directions. Google Maps may allow you to switch directions depending on whether you prefer the subway, the bus, fewer transfers, less walking, etc., but it does not allow you to switch directions depending on whether you need to avoid using stairs. Bing provides you fewer options than Google and fails to show wheelchair-friendly directions. Yahoo provides fewer options yet than Google and Bing, and Mapquest (AOL’s internet map service) does not seem like something you use if you need mass transit directions. Regardless of options, none of these internet map providers do the job of giving people wheelchair-friendly directions.

So if you can’t use stairs but want to make a day trip to the American Museum of Natural History, for example, you will find that all map providers are useless because of the lack of wheelchair-friendly directions. That is because the subway station for the museum lacks wheelchair accessibility, and there is nothing on any internet map provider which tells you that. Hopefully, people who suddenly lose the ability to use stairs will realize the uselessness of these internet map directions before starting out on their journeys.

Wheelchair Access Google
Google Maps lets you know whether you want the “best route,” “fewer transfers,” or “less walking,” but there is no option for “wheelchair accessible.” This picture was taken by me.

Between a lack of wheelchair-friendly transit (both mass transit and walking), and map providers such as Google and Bing failing to provide you with wheelchair-friendly transit directions, the result is that someone who desperately needs to avoid stairs will need to look hard for directions, and look much harder than able-bodied people like me.

The lack of wheelchair-accessible directions is an injustice, and an injustice I was blind to until recently. Yet, all it takes is something like a broken leg or a car crash that paralyzes part of your body, and suddenly you need to rely on wheelchair-friendly directions. If such an unfortunate event ever happens to you, you will not be able to rely on internet map providers for your transit directions. You will need to figure out directions through other means because internet maps, like so many other things, are made for an ableist world.