What Starbucks Got Right—and ABC Got Wrong—About Racism

A useful lesson in corporate contrition and the difference between trying to solve a problem and simply getting rid of one

Mark Makela /Reuters

On Tuesday, as the corporate headquarters of ABC Entertainment were swept up in a race maelstrom of Roseanne Barr’s making, approximately 175,000 Starbucks employees were undergoing implicit-bias training across the country. The four-hour-long program was a corporate mea culpa after viral video captured the arrest of two black men in a Starbucks for, effectively, being black in a Starbucks. There was a certain symbolism unfolding through the day: one corporation trying to resolve its wrongs, another showcasing how unsolvable the wrongs remain.

While Barr’s racist tweet seemed almost anachronistic in its vulgarity—the crudeness of the comparison between a powerful African American woman and an ape seemed a holdover from the era of lynchings and cross-burnings—the specifically modern way in which her racist spark lit up social media was evidence that Barr’s ugliness is very much a thing of the present, rather than the past. It is the sort of malevolence that does not lend itself to offsites or employee handbooks: The backlash to ABC’s decision to cancel Roseanne suggests that there is no corporate manual for this moment. For the people who have compared Michelle Obama, Valerie Jarrett, and Susan Rice to apes, what possible line of argument is there? There doesn’t even seem to be a common language.

But the twin storms at ABC and Starbucks offer a useful lesson in corporate contrition as we enter the Age of Invective, illustrating the difference between trying to solve a problem and simply getting rid of one.

Starbucks, though widely pilloried for its treatment of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, was under no mandate to close its stores for afternoon-long sessions where employees could discuss their attitudes about race. Nor was there any particular expectation that the company would bring in leading voices—including former Attorney General Eric Holder, Heather McGhee of Demos, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, and Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP LDF—to develop a basic curriculum on race for the men and women attending the trainings.

And then there is the Starbucks video, which—to the extent a seven-minute video can—does an effective job conveying the alternate reality that many black Americans inhabit. “It’s not like I can mute my actual, physical blackness, right?’ said one woman interviewed in the video. “So it’s an arsenal of different masks. And it happens every time I leave my house.”

Interspersed with these interviews, there is footage of black citizens being heckled, dragged out of planes and surveilled in stores. An older man in the video offers, “It brought me such despair, the day I recognized I had to explain this to my son. That this muddy river of racism, he was still gonna have to walk through it. We hadn’t dammed it, we hadn’t dried it up. It was still there for him to go through. And I’ve got to somehow tell him, Okay—off you go.”

It is not your average corporate-retreat video.

“It took as a given that racism is a problem,” McGhee told me. “This was a mass teach-in for 175,000 Americans.”

Meanwhile, over at ABC headquarters, the executive leadership team was coming to terms with the truth ABC/Disney President Ben Sherwood had laughingly announced several weeks prior to The New York Times: “You can’t control Roseanne Barr. Many who have tried have failed. She’s the one and only.”

ABC has been mostly applauded for its decision, made within hours of Barr’s tweet, to terminate its hit show, the biggest on its roster. As my colleague David Sims points out, the network really had no other choice. “The network finally, belatedly, realized it couldn’t just reply again with, ‘She’s the one and only.’”

Sherwood, in a memo on Tuesday, had dispensed with his earlier “Let Roseanne Be Roseanne” strategy. Of the decision to end the show, he wrote: “In the end, it came down to doing what’s right and upholding our values of inclusion, tolerance, and civility.”

Yet one has to ask: Did those values of inclusion, tolerance, and civility not extend to Barr’s earlier tweets about another woman of color who was compared to an ape? The comedian has been hurling invective for years: This week was not the first time Roseanne Barr has called a prominent, powerful woman of color an ape, it’s just the first time she’s had a show canceled over it. If ABC has taken this moment to publicly burnish its values, it must be noted that the initial decision to greenlight a series featuring an avowed racist is equally a declaration of values.

As with most decisions in corporate America, the timeline is relevant. In Bloomberg, Josh Green writes that Donald Trump’s The Apprentice was, for a time—like Roseanne—a hit with the network audience.

But by the spring of 2011, Trump’s birther crusade had begun in earnest—a campaign Trump conducted on multiple networks with the explicit goal of discrediting the presidency of Barack Obama by way of racist dog whistles. Yet while The Apprentice audience declined, its revenue did not. “Despite the outcry over the birther issue,” writes Green, “only a single corporate advertiser, Groupon, bailed on The Apprentice.”

And so neither Donald Trump, nor The Apprentice, was fired.

These days, things are different—or so we imagine. Audiences now target corporate sponsors as a way of ratcheting up pressure on the networks (see: Bill O’Reilly) and executives have become far more comfortable with firing major talent in previously unimaginable timeframes (see: Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose). The gloves are off. But the corporate sanctimony seems ill-placed: ABC’s handling of its crisis appears not to have been born from iron-clad moral code, or, like Starbucks, a genuine (if inconclusive) attempt to get at the heart of the problem. It is the result of C-suite strategy and of crisis management. In the short-lived saga of the Roseanne reboot, the network’s better angels may have been in the room at the end, but it’s unclear where they were at the start.

Starbucks, on the other hand, will almost certainly continue to employ racists. The company has tens of thousands of employees on its payroll, and by McGhee’s estimation, it onboards as many as 100,000 each year. It is impossible to know what lies, truly, in each and every one of their hearts. But from now on, these same employees will have to hear men and women talk about the pain of racism, the very nearly supernatural existence required of black Americans, and the arsenal of masks they put on each day, to go to work, to live a normal life in this country. That may not be the solution, but it sure seems like progress.