Let me give you my biases, I loathe Starbucks. I really do. I hate huge centrally-owned and operated chains and Starbucks is a chain. I hate being ripped-off and Starbucks is over-priced. I love coffee and, for well-under half the price per ounce, 7-11’s is better. So, by this point, you’re probably thinking I don’t have much good to say about Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s new #RaceTogether Initiative to end racism. Well you’re right. I don’t.
Starbucks employees have been tasked with writing “Race Together” on cups to start a dialogue with customers about racism. Of course I think ending racism is a worthy goal but I’m skeptical that Schultz’s motivations are pure and perhaps more to the point extremely doubtful that such an effort will bear tasty fruit. Let’s start with the motive. Focusing on racial divisions is a great way to avoid focusing on wealth and income disparities.
At least anecdotally and likely in Schultz’s mind, Starbucks devotees are both affluent and liberal. The company after all hails from Seattle. So, Schultz probably guesses his average customer will offer a fist bump or cluck sympathetically when handed a double-latte from a dark-skinned barista wearing a hands-up t-shirt.
What could go wrong? Not much, Schultz probably figured. And, who knows, business might even get a bump if patrons in dark blue cities chuck-a-block with Starbucks, like New York, Boston, Washington, and San Francisco, think they’re supporting a progressive enterprise.
In response to general mocking, Schultz defended “Race Together” by saying “I’m not a black person, but I am deeply affected by what’s going on, and so will our general society if the American promise, the American dream, the aspiration of the country is only available to a select few”.
In November 2013, Yahoo Finance identified Starbucks as the tenth worst-paying company in America with baristas making on average less than $9 per hour. If you don’t make enough to rent a studio apartment in many American cities, the odds are that the American dream isn’t available to you regardless of your skin tone.
How much more comforting for Schultz, though, it must be to believe that the real stumbling block for his employees is racial animus. It’s also absolving. No need to take a little less than the over $9,600 an hour (or more than 1,000 X the average barista’s salary) he paid himself in 2012-13. Instead getting customers and employees to agree that whites are privileged, cops are tougher on blacks, and jobs for minorities are scarce will do what exactly. Actually, it doesn’t seem like it will do anything much positive.
I wouldn’t have such a negative reaction to “Race Together” if I thought it was just a well-intended nothing. But whatever Schultz’s motivation, the program seems likely to have two distinct regressive impacts:
First, it may well distract from recent efforts to raise food service workers pay. If racism rather than poor pay is holding people back, demands for a living wage are moot. Second, race, even more so than gender or sexual preference, inherently divides people with similar economic interests. Nearly every family comprises males and females with the same or very similar financial prospects. Likewise, parents of gays are likely to perceive their own and their children’s interests as closely aligned.
But most families are not interracial. As a result, calls to improve outcomes for one race will almost always be perceived by members of other groups as unfair or even if historically justified still personally harmful. As middle-class whites and Asians see it, the more slots at elite universities that are filled by blacks and Latinos, the fewer there will be for them. The reaction of poor whites to claims that they are privileged ranges from bemusement to rage.
I am not arguing against confronting overt acts of racism. What I am arguing for is concentrating our energies on electing politicians who will raise the minimum wage, strengthen unions, and fund anti-poverty laws programs through highly progressive taxes. Such efforts can unite us across, rather than cleave us by, racial lines and, if ultimately successful, will make the American dream real for tens of millions of now-impoverished blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans.