6Jan 2019

Does Mandatory Racial Bias Training Actually Work?

Posted by : H. Adeniyi Taiwo

When two Black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks store back in 2018, seemingly for no genuine reason, Starbucks responded to the controversy by announcing it would close thousands of stores to conduct mandatory racial bias training. However, does this training actually work?

In recent years, the corner stone of discussions and trainings to prevent racial discrimination rely heavily on implicit bias. Implicit bias refers to attitudes or stereotypes that impact our understanding, behavior and decisions towards other groups in an unconscious manner. The implicit association test (or IAT) is a popular tool for measuring ones implicit bias. The test typically works like this: you sit down at a computer and are shown a series of images and/or words; you’re then instructed to press one button when you see a good image/word and another button when you see a bad image/word. As you go through the exam, the computer measures your reaction times and plugs it into an algorithm that generates your score. If you quickly associated good words with white faces more often than with black faces, you will be deemed to have a preference for white faces: meaning you’re biased.

If this test could be validated, it would be a great tool to make people realize that we still have room for improvement as a society. However, there is a pile of scholarly work that suggests that the IAT falls short as a reliable tool because it fails to predict whether one’s score reflects how people behave in real life. In other words, just because the test reveals an alleged racial preference, that doesn’t mean that people act on those preferences in real life. Often times the same person can take the test twice and get two completely different scores. Also, is the person taking the test responding based on their own thoughts/feelings or on what they think society feels? Even the test’s creators have admitted that IAT has limitations.

Why then, is this test so popular? Why are more and more companies instituting mandatory training when even Mahzarin Banaji, the co-creator of the IAT, has gone on record as saying that “mandatory training has the potential for backlash.” Call me cynical, but I believe that the main reason these trainings are instituted is to protect companies from discrimination lawsuits and bad press.

Known as the Faragher-Ellerth Defense, companies can defend against claims of hostile work environment by, in part, showing that they took steps to prevent discrimination, such as having policies and trainings in place. The defense takes its name from the two US Supreme Court cases that created it: Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 US 775 (1998) and Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998).

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no benefit at all from having discussions aimed at preventing racial bias or that companies don’t genuinely want to curb discriminatory behavior. The issue is whether having mandatory training at work is the best way to achieve that goal. As long as companies see it is useful in terms of avoiding liability, it will continue whether or not there are any objective measures that it is working.  

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