Overcaffeinated Attacks on the Starbucks 'Race Together' Campaign

Grappling imperfectly with race in America is not a moral failing or cause to be disparaged.

When Starbucks announced that it would host conversations about race at brick-and-mortar locations across America, a campaign dubbed "Race Together," the venti coffeehouse chain and co-working space immediately found itself facing an acerbic backlash. The brand is now under fire and its leadership is being subjected to intense personal attacks. Companies found guilty of racial discrimination have attracted less heat.

Any high-profile campaign launched by a large corporation is bound to generate scrutiny and criticism. Like many, I am deeply skeptical of Starbucks' ability to improve race relations or decrease racial injustice with in-store conversations. But CEO Howard Schulz seems to be earnest in his belief that this issue is important, in his commitment to doing something about it, and in his judgment that "Race Together" will play a salutary role. There's a small chance that he'll be proved right—it isn't as if he has no track record betting big where others failed to see opportunity—and it's hard to imagine the campaign doing any significant harm. It certainly doesn't rank on any sane list of corporate misdeeds or transgressions, even if it turns out to be bad for employees, shareholders, or both.

So while I'm all for constructive criticism and skepticism, this unorthodox, long-shot effort strikes me as a bizarre focus for ire, especially given how many examples of egregious racial injustice there are in America. In fact, while "Race Together" should continue to be subject to critical scrutiny, a negative reaction is much more likely to do harm. It sends this message: No effort to grapple with race in America will go unpunished. No matter how well-intentioned, it will be attacked preemptively out of any proportion to its place in the hierarchy of racial problems in the country.

This isn't to disparage constructive critics who say that the campaign puts an unfair burden on baristas, or that the employee-customer power dynamic does not lend itself to frank exchanges, or that Starbucks' resources would be better spent in different manner. For an example of tough but constructive criticism, see the following segment on Chris Hayes' show. All three participants make thoughtful points:

Guest Jay Smooth articulated my own intuitions when he argued that what America needs, more than anything, is focused attention on remedying unjust policies:

The intentions seem noble and I want to keep an open mind. But I think there's already this strange fixation on conversation when it comes to race, which you don't see with other issues that we want to take seriously. I think it's telling that when Howard Schultz wanted to help veterans he didn't just tell people to have conversations about how much they like veterans. He committed to a plan of action to help veterans. He talked about being inspired by what happened in Ferguson. But I think when you look at the DOJ report on Ferguson, it does not describe issues that can be addressed by having chats in coffee shops. You're talking about institutional, systemic issues. The emphasis on talking about it misleads us about where the problems are. This focus on conversation comes out of our assumption that racism manifests on a personal level in our individual feelings toward each other.

Agree or disagree, that is a substantive critique.

What's damaging are attacks that are bereft of discrete, substantive arguments. Rather, their subtext is something like the following: Starbucks, you are offensive. How dare you take up the subject of race in America when you clearly don't get it? As someone with a much more sophisticated and enlightened understanding of race than you are even capable of having, I'm compelled by your ignorance to draw attention to your idiocy and probable bigotry and to shame you for it. Your cluelessness is tiresome and embarrassing to those of us who get it. I speak for all right-thinking people in this.

There are right-and-left-wing versions of that attack.

The sin for which stones are being cast is not racial animus or support for policies that have a disparate impact on marginalized groups. The sin is talking about race in a way that is perceived as "problematic," which is another way of saying that it implies the speaker doesn't share the same ur-theory of race as the critic.

In the controversy at hand, the experience of Corey DuBrowa, Starbucks' Senior Vice President of Global Communications, is instructive. Soon after the "Race Together" campaign was announced, he deleted his Twitter account, later explaining that critics attacking him were "a distraction from the respectful conversation we are trying to start." Some of those critics mocked Starbucks for announcing a conversation on race only to have a VP flee social media almost as soon as it began.

Media outlets aired that critique. The site Mediaite was typically harsh in its framing. It headlined its article, "Starbucks SVP Deletes Twitter Account After Actual Minorities Ask Him About Race Issues."

A closer look at what happened is clarifying. It all began with a tweet from the vice president, who wrote:

The observation that we're all human beings regardless of our race is about as innocuous a statement on the subject as can be imagined. Angrily attacking it would be a strange choice if one were motivated by a desire to identify or remedy racial injustice. What kind of anti-racism regards that as a tweet from an enemy rather than an ally?

Yet it was attacked by many. Mediaite highlighted the following response: "Easy for you to say mayonnaise boy." That same Twitter user wrote, "your degree did you a disservice." The user was then blocked, along with various other accounts directing abuse at DuBrowa, who concluded that Twitter was unlikely to facilitate a constructive exchange on race with interlocutors who begin with nasty ad-hominem insults. That judgment was reasonable, but caused the user to reply, "I'm blocked bc brown?" No. The VP in the midst of the digital pile-on blocked a user named "feminism and burritos" because of a racialized insult, not because he guessed at the user's race and blocked him or her for not being white.

Unfortunately, blocking a few trolls attracted more people who began baiting DuBrowa into blocking them, too. At that point, he could stay on Twitter, or he could suspend his account on the theory that his presence would do no good and distract from an important conversation that could be conducted more constructively elsewhere. I'd characterize withdrawing as wisdom. In 140 characters, could you constructively respond to queries such as, "why do you think i want to hear what a white barista with matted dreads thinks about race"?

Another way to characterize his actions: "Starbucks SVP Deletes Twitter Account After Actual Minorities Ask Him About Racism," a media headline insinuating that 1) he didn't previously speak to any minorities about this campaign; 2) his Twitter abusers did not include white people (they did); 3) the Starbucks VP knew the races of the people insulting him; 4) his Twitter critics were most accurately characterized as "actual minorities" (as opposed to fake ones?) rather than "tiny subset of Twitter users unrepresentative of the medium, minorities, Starbucks customers, and people," and 5) he's unwilling to engage in conversations about race (as if declining to adjudicate the subject on Twitter is tantamount to giving up).

Notice that the attacks on this man that spread from Twitter to the mainstream media, where they've been aired for millions, are not grounded in any racial injustice he perpetrated, or a rigorous assessment of his character, or a judgment about how earnestly he cares about remedying racial ills in the United States. Rather, he was immediately targeted by people without knowledge of any of those factors because his employer launched a campaign to remedy racial injustice, attracting the attention of people intent on flaunting their superior enlightenment, including a subset who do so by trying to make others look like bigots.

With all the actual racists in America, the guy who tweeted "one race: human" became a villain to people who purport to be motivated by the righteousness of anti-racism.

Here's DuBrowa explaining his return to Twitter:

Last night, around midnight, I deleted my Twitter account. I also blocked a handful of Twitter users — given the hostile nature of what I was seeing, it felt like the right thing to do. I’ve been a dedicated — some might say obsessive — Twitter user for nearly seven years and as a professional communicator, Twitter has proven to be a valuable tool for me to interact with my professional community, with media, on behalf of Starbucks, as well as “on behalf of me.” But last night I felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity. I got overwhelmed by the volume and tenor of the discussion, and I reacted. Most of all, I was concerned about becoming a distraction from the respectful conversation around Race Together that we have been trying to create.

In response to that statement, a faction on Twitter savaged him for "tone-policing people of color," as if objecting to and distancing oneself from indefensible rhetoric like "spineless worm" and "mayonnaise boy" is illegitimate. Says another critic of his return-to-Twitter statement, "silencing and blocking PoC with whom you solicited a dialogue about race is an example of racism. Shall you overcome?" Engage constructively with people bitterly insulting you on Twitter or your behavior is racist? Let's be real: No demographic group in America finds that reasonable. This is what it looks like when trolls masquerade as anti-racists.

For Starbucks, the backlash to "Race Together" was hardly confined to one executive. Some Twitter users began scrolling back through the social-media accounts of Starbucks executives and other employees, including a photographer the company used, in hopes of finding some racially unenlightened sentiment in any of their pasts. This sort of hunt for a "gotcha" illustration of what would be cast as hypocrisy creates another perverse incentive: Stay silent about racism and enjoy business as usual—or engage in a seemingly earnest attempt to improve race relations and guarantee that every word posted by anyone in your company with a public profile will be picked over and criticized by uncharitable critics eager to discredit you. And then, if they find anything, major news sites will treat it as a story.

In these ways, a small number of uncharitable people—some leftists, some reactionaries; disproportionately but not exclusively white—poison public discourse on race. And that's a shame, because while remedying identifiable racial injustices strikes me as the ideal first priority—especially for a powerful corporation with deep pockets—I do think that dialogue on race and racism can be salutary.

Yes, when people urge "a conversation" about race, what they're sometimes really saying is that everyone should be educated to embrace their ostensibly correct narrative. (Said one Starbucks critic, "Will you be sending your Baristas to classes on Critical Race Theory and Race Relations to ensure knowledgeability?") While I do think dialogue can leave individual participants better informed—sometimes pushing them in a leftward direction and other times in a rightward direction—my hope is that when people from different ideologies discuss the subject, they'll see the many ways that they can cooperate to remedy injustices and improve policy despite the differences in their overarching theories of race.

After all, the U.S. will always remain an extremely diverse country. And if unanimity on grand racial narratives cannot even be found at individual Thanksgiving tables, college discussion groups, corporate board rooms, or barbershops, the country as a whole is never going to alight on a single understanding. For progress to happen, people who disagree with aspects of one another's approach to race must find ways to tolerate one another's perspectives. Doing so will sometimes generate understandable discomfort or even anger, but there's never an excuse for performative vitriol. Most people of all races understand that.

A tiny minority of users can be relied upon to act like jerks on social media, whether the topic is race or baseball or daylight-savings time. When the subject is race, there is an added dimension: unspoken trepidation that to be wrong about the subject is a mortal sin, even if the error is made with the best of intentions and free of animus. There is, in fact, no shame in having discrete views about a subject as complicated as race that turn out, after further scrutiny, to be honestly mistaken. People conversing in real life tend to understand that better than people on the web. So as imperfect as racial dialogues held at Starbucks are likely to be, they may well be more constructive than many now happening online. So long as that is true, the web should cut Starbucks some slack.