Am I the only person in America not making fun of Howard Schultz?
The Starbucks CEO bought himself a ton of ridicule recently when he attempted to jumpstart a national dialogue on race by having baristas write the words “Race Together” on customers’ cups of Cinnamon Dolce Light Frappuccino Grande or Caffe Misto Venti with extra coconut.
On Twitter, the campaign was dubbed “patronizing,” “absurd” and “a load of c–p.” On “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore,” Rosie Perez said, “I don’t want to be forced to have a conversation. Especially early in the f––-g morning.” Some folks questioned the wisdom of calling for racial dialogue when your executive team has all the rich cultural diversity of a GOP convention in Idaho.
Starbucks says there will eventually be more to the campaign, but what we’ve seen so far has been epically bad – naive at best, dumber than a sack of coffee beans at worst. Give it this much credit, though: It came out of an earnest conviction that the future health of our country requires us to solve race. In other words, Starbucks had good intentions.
You may say that’s not much. You may note that good intentions are the macadam on the road to hell.
Me, I think we dismiss good intentions at our own peril.
Besides, Schultz’s biggest mistake was not in having baristas write a trite slogan, but in his failure to realize that much of the country is simply not equipped for the conversation he is inviting them to have. Last week, even as “Race Together” was being lampooned, I spent 41 minutes I'll never get back on the phone with a white, Jewish reader who had insisted she wanted to have the “conversation on race” I have often said this country needs. It was not a productive encounter.
She starts on a spiel about blacks and drugs. I point out that only about 15 percent of drug use in this country is by blacks and that the vast majority of dealers are white. There is a silence. She says this is something she had not known.
We move on to the fact that Jews were foot soldiers and financiers of the Civil Rights Movement, so she is offended that black people never attend Holocaust remembrance services. She has no statistics to prove this, but insists her observation is valid based on her lived experience. I point out that her lived experience is in Tucson, which has a black population of maybe 17.
And so it goes.
What it illustrated for me, and not for the first time, is that often, when people think they’re talking about race, they really aren’t. They are talking instead about the myths, resentments, projections and suppositions by which they justify half-baked notions about who those “other” people are.
You can’t wholly blame them. Who can speak sensibly on a subject he doesn’t understand? And we’ve been foiled in our quest to understand by an institutional conspiracy of ignorance. Race is the rawest wound of the American psyche, but somehow, you can graduate high school without knowing who Emmett Till was or that Martin Luther King ever said any words other than “I have a dream.” Race has done more than arguably any other social force to shape this country, yet somehow news media do not cover it, unless forced to do so by crisis or controversy.
So here is what I’ve come to realize: Before we can have a fruitful “conversation on race,” we need to first have education on race. We will not be a well nation or a whole one until we cease to fear and begin to understand this force that has made us who and what we are.
And how dare we reject from that cause any good person who earnestly seeks the same end, even if his solution is as dumb as a slogan on a coffee cup? Yes, I recognize the limitations of good intentions.
But they sure beat the heck out of the other kind.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. To reach him, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.