Starbucks’ #RaceTogether Campaign Is Not The Answer

Ein Cafe der Kette Starbucks Coffee, fotografiert am 26.01.2015 in Potsdam (Brandenburg). Photo by: Ralf Hirschberger/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
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“I reject that completely because we can’t leave this to someone else.”

That was Howard Schultz’s response to internal naysayers of Starbucks’ #RaceTogether initiative as he unrolled a plan for Starbucks’ “191,000 employees to talk about race relations with customers.” Using material written by Starbucks and USA TODAY, Starbucks stores plan to have supplementary reading material including race “conversation starters,” asking customers about how many times they broke bread with a member of a different race in the last year.

In our determination to create a society where race doesn’t matter, we have regressed by ignoring race entirely. And #RaceTogether is at risk of deepening the gap. It suggests that a company that stands to gain from increased publicity and store traffic is the one who can lead conversations that will advance justice, rather than the communities whose rights are infringed by institutional and interpersonal racism that is prevalent throughout their daily-lived experiences.

The local voices globally united in support of #BlackLivesMatter will only continue to grow in volume, as they are rising against a wrong that has permeated our justice and law enforcement systems, and our relationships with each other. And they should be the ones leading this conversation.

Even if we were to make the assumption that Howard Schultz and the Starbucks team have good intentions, and sincerely wanted to address one of our nation’s most significant challenges, #RaceTogether is still problematic because it does not let communities who are targeted because of institutional racism use their own voice. Further, there is no defined goal to this program that addresses the root of current racial inequity, which includes institutions’ decisions to pass the proverbial hot potato, and not to make lasting change.

One only has to look at the Supreme Court to understand that racism is being ignored, rather than acknowledged, at the highest levels of law and policy. The Court ignores the lingering effects of de jure segregation, and continues to decide issues that have strong and deep racial histories, such as affirmative action and voting rights, without examining the underlying systemic and structural causes of these problems. Instead, the Supreme Court asserts that the way to end racial discrimination is to stop talking about race. However, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor correctly asserted in her dissent in 2014’s affirmative action case involving the University of Michigan, the issue of race must be considered because of “persistent racial inequality in society—inequality that cannot be ignored and that has produced stark socioeconomic disparities.”

Further, communities of color do not have equal protection under the law—a basic constitutional protection. Law enforcement, and thus Americans, treat communities of color as inherently suspicious—as criminal suspects, terrorism suspects, or undocumented status suspects. It doesn’t seem to matter if your family has been in America for days, or generations.

Take, for example, the unfair detention of Sikh American Sher Singh in 2001. On September 12, Sher Singh was on board a Boston-board train, wearing his turban and beard, articles of his Sikh faith, an independent religion that is 500 years old. Passengers on the train called authorities to report a suspicious passenger. When a SWAT team escorted Sher Singh off the train in Providence, the detention was widely covered by media at the scene, yet no cameras were there when Sher Singh was freed.

A Sikh’s turban and a beard should not make him a suspect, no more than the color of one’s skin, or what attire he wears. If our appearance determines our access to justice, that is unequal justice. America needs to debunk the stereotypes and myths our law enforcement practices are based upon. Law enforcement has to be based upon reasonable suspicion, and not inherent suspicion based upon racial profiles. Americans need basic protections so that among other things, the color of our skin, our religion, national origin, and our ethnicity will not be the main calculus in law enforcement’s determination of who is suspicious.

If Starbucks wanted to give proceeds from sales to community-based organizations that are addressing disparities, generating awareness, empowering communities, and advancing justice, I would welcome their contributions. If Starbucks wanted to inspire Americans to ask their local Congressional representatives to support the Voting Rights Amendment Act to stop discriminatory voting practices, as Schulz previously asked baristas to write “Come Together” to persuade politicians to avoid fiscal shutdowns, I would support that, as well.

But #RaceTogether does not propel changes, and it has not told us what outcomes Starbucks wants to generate. Instead, it can create unfair onus on minority employees and minority patrons. It suggests that Starbucks, not their own communities and their own sense of identity, is what empowers them. Doing so not only gives a disproportionately loud voice to the clientele who can afford to buy Starbucks’ coffee, it also overlooks the very real economic disparities inherent between Starbucks’ clientele and its staff. Such oversights could leave vital, underserved populations out of the discussion entirely, unless they work at the coffee chain.

Starbucks is right—there are race-based inequities. But in its current form, #RaceTogether will not remedy them. We need measured, community-based approaches and institutions to accept their responsibility and play a role in creating change.

Jasbir (Jesse) Kaur Bawa is an Assistant Professor of Lawyering Skills at Howard University School of Law. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF).

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