You Can Run But You Can’t Pander: Starbucks And The Perils Of Accidental Racism
Print Friendly and PDF

Starbucks Holds Annual Shareholders Meeting

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz

See, earlier, White Guilt With That Flat White? Starbucks Targets White Employees–and Customers–For Possibly Illegal Racial Harassment

When Starbucks first announced its now-concluded “Race Together” plan for Politically Correct coffee conversations, the Twitterverse snarked several ideas for new custom drinks: "Malcolm Xpresso,""Some of My Best Friends Are Black Coffee," "Buy any beans necessary” [Starbucks' 'Race Together' campaign draws widespread mockery on Twitter, by Jacob Silverstein, New York Daily News, March 18, 2015].

Jokes aside, Malcolm X had already addressed the relationship between racial metaphors and coffee, though not in a particularly PC fashion. In Spike Lee’s biopic Malcolm X, as Malcolm pours cream into his drink, he deadpans, “The only thing I like integrated is my coffee.”

In real life, he wouldn’t even integrate his beverages, analogizing in a 1963 speech:

It's just like when you've got some coffee that's too black, which means it's too strong. What do you do? You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. But if you pour too much cream in it, you won't even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep.

Needless to say, white cultural figures have a different take on the racial implications of coffee. 50 years after Malcolm X, the pop country singer Brad Paisley attempted to atone for his white Southern upbringing by singing a duet about a fictional dialogue with a black barista in his widely-mocked song Accidental Racist:

To the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main, I hope you understand

When I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan


Rapper LL Cool J responded.

Dear Mr. White Man, I wish you understood

What the world is really like when you’re livin’ in the hood

Just because my pants are saggin’ doesn’t mean I’m up to no good

You should try to get to know me, I really wish you would

Now my chains are gold but I’m still misunderstood

Pundits and comedians rightly mocked the trite song for its stupidity. However, much of the criticism was serious—the song was insufficiently anti-racist.

When they didn’t snark, the Left explained that the real problem was that the song suggested that a dialogue about race must be two-sided. As the New York Times Jon Caramanica explained:

The song also implies a shared burden of duty, as if both sides had to do equal work toward reconciliation, ignoring centuries of privilege and imbalance.

[Taking Country Less Conservative |Brad Paisley’s ‘wheelhouse’ April 9, 2013]

As a white southern country singer, Paisley was already suspect. However, he had anti-racist credentials—he wrote an equally trite song, “Welcome to the Future” praising Barack Obama’s election as overcoming the racism of his hometown, complete with references to cross burnings, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks [Exclusive: Brad Paisley shares his night at the White House, CNN, July 23, 2009]. And he was anti-Confederate flag—in his even more moronic song “Camouflage” he suggests making camouflage the colors of the South because “Well the stars and bars offend some folks and I guess I see why.”

Yet by having a dialogue on race that was not entirely filled with white guilt, Paisley was lambasted as at best tone deaf, and at worst racist himself.

Similarly, Starbucks having a mere conversation about race which does not focus on blaming whites is problematic.

As Vox's "Race, Law and Politics" writer Jenée Desmond-Harris [Email her] explained:

Focusing on this vague idea of race as a boogeyman that torments all of us equally (and might disappear if we just talk it out) doesn't actually force introspection about racism — which is the source of our problems.

[Starbucks' push to make baristas talk about race sounds like it could be disastrous, March 17, 2015]

When Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz commented that Race Together’s goal was not to “point fingers or to place blame” (just as Brad Paisley was “caught between southern pride and southern blame”), Desmond-Harris sneered:

So the objective literally is just to talk. Not to confront and dismantle racism. Not to identify its perpetrators (in fact, Schultz seems to discourage this). Not to find solutions to racial equality or decrease racial bias. But just to talk.

Similarly, Jeb Lund explained in Rolling Stone that the discussion is futile because

…of the hurdles they must leap to overcome the white privilege to which you are blind. What a white barista with a predominantly white customer base is supposed to say is anyone's guess.

[We Went to Starbucks to Talk to Baristas About Race, March 20, 2015]

Instead of letting whites talk to each other, Desmond-Harris suggested that Schultz should have “stocked his stores' shelves with historical texts about American racism, or the work of people like Tim Wise.”

Even Van Jones, one of Starbucks’s few defenders, qualified that “the topic should probably be called ‘systematic racism,’ not just ‘race.’” [Starbucks' critics are making a big mistake, CNN, March 20, 2015]

Conservatives, of course, mocked Starbucks as well. TruthRevolt noted that “Starbucks #RaceTogether Brings Americans Together In Mockery.” Both liberals and conservatives noted the hypocrisy of Starbuck’s notably nondiverse Board and its lack of locations in majority black areas like Selma and Ferguson [Starbucks – Practice What You Preach, by Brian Joondeph, American Thinker, March 24, 2015].

However, let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that Schultz cared about conservative criticisms. In his letter to shareholders, he said “we didn’t expect universal praise,” yet I suspect he only anticipated conservative mockery [A Letter from Howard Schultz to Starbucks Partners Regarding Race Together, by Howard Schultz, Starbucks Corporate Website, March 22, 2015].

Indeed, Schultz has gone out of his way to deliberately mock and outrage conservatives by promoting Leftist positions. In response to concerns from conservative shareholders over the company’s vocal support of gay marriage, he flatly said: “You can sell your shares in Starbucks and buy shares in another company” [Howard Schultz to Anti-Gay-Marriage Starbucks Shareholder: 'You Can Sell Your Shares', by Frederick Allen, Forbes, March 22, 2013].

Does Howard Schultz truly believe his own nonsense about diversity or did he think #RaceTogether would make the professional race hustlers go easy on him the next time they picked a corporation to shake down? In the end, it doesn’t matter. The Left’s outrage over accidental racists like Howard Schultz and Brad Paisley show that no matter what your intentions, appeasement is futile.

Alexander Hart (email him) is a conservative journalist.


Print Friendly and PDF