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.