Over the past couple weeks, much of the mainstream media and bloggersphere had been abuzz with frenzied commentary to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s efforts to encourage baristas to discuss the issue of race with customers. Reaction ranged from sympathetic, mildly supportive to cynical to outright critical. I applaud Schultz for taking the initiative to confront an issue (no matter how awkwardly) that has been a perennial problem in our nation since its inception.
Starbucks abruptly ended the campaign earlier this week.
For many people, race is, indeed, often the 800-pound rambunctious elephant in the room. It is permeating our current state of affairs. The supposedly post racial society we supposedly entered several years ago. For the record, I (and probably many other people of color) never believed such a fallacy. There is no person who is attuned to the climate of the current environment who can convincingly argue otherwise and Schultz is to be commended for attempting to tackle this thorny issue.
That being said, the fact is that for far too often any effort to address the issue of race in America has been a largely packaged affair; ceremonial, co-opted and controlled by well meaning yet often alarmingly out of touch legislators and celebrities. To put it bluntly, far too many efforts to address the issue of racism in our contemporary culture is often misguided, distressingly adrift, naive and tone deaf to the concerns and harsh realities that many people who suffer its (racism) pernicious effects have to deal with on a daily basis.
Politicians of all races, entertainers and the occasional athlete or public intellectual locking arms and singing freedom songs from the civil rights movement more than half a century ago does little if anything to confront the searing issues that are plaguing many communities of color in the 21st century.
· Unarmed Black men (and some women) being routinely shot by police officers.
· Students of color and non-White faculty and administrators, college students and faculty routinely enduring relentless forms of micro aggressions from fellow students and colleagues on their campuses.
· Our current African American president, since the day he was inaugurated as president, consistently being subjected to disgraceful acts of obstruction, personal slights and blatant disrespect.
· Black college graduates are more than twice as likely as their White co-horts to be unemployed.
· Applicants with Black-sounding names are considerably less likely to be contacted by employers than applicants with more White-sounding names.
· Black customers being disproportionately more likely to be followed by staff and, in some cases, detained by police officers in stores for suspicion of shoplifting—Shopping While Black.
In fact, just last summer, Macy’s agreed to pay more than $650,000 to settle racial profiling allegations at one of its Manhattan locations. And virtually all of us Black folk over 35 years old know all too well of the ongoing saga of being pulled over by law enforcement largely without probable cause—Driving While Black (DWB ). As you can imagine, there are numerous other examples of the indignities that people of African descent (and many other non-Whites) frequently endure, sometimes on a daily basis.
Having Starbucks barristas serve as goodwill ambassadors leading the nation in addressing the racial problem in our nation was a misguided, yet noble effort that was already dead on arrival. The cold hard fact is that, at this moment, it is not beneficial for people of color—in particular, Black people—to engage in discussions on race with mainstream (White) America. These sort of “let’s come together and talk about it” type of talks do little to solve the problem of systematic and structural racism, etc. Most, if not all of us, are all too aware of racism and its potentially debilitating effect on our lives. Having nice, polite conversations about race have not solved such ills in the past and there is certainly no reason to believe they will do so now.
The truth is that White Americans will have to come to grips with its racism and begin to have the conversation among themselves. The reason is that many Whites have adopted a defensive posture declaring that things are “not as bad as we think it is.” Rather, on the contrary, we are paranoid, oversensitive, etc. Some hard line racism deniers actually have the audacity to say that too many of us (Black people) are “ungrateful.” Imagine! Having the nerve to be asked to be treated fairly like human beings in a society that has routinely excluded or, at the very least, marginalized you renders one as being difficult.
With such polarizing resistance and denial, an attempt at having a fruitful, progressive and productive discussion on race is likely to result in an exercise of futility. It is best, at least for now, that Whites have this most important conversation among themselves. Most Black people, myself included, are not willing to go down this dead end road of racial deja vu again anytime soon.