Starbucks was trashed by many online for its "Race Together" initiative
Van Jones: What kind of lesson will this have for other companies that try to do the right thing?
Editor’s Note: Van Jones is president of the Dream Corps/Rebuild The Dream, which promote innovative solutions for America’s economy. He was President Barack Obama’s green jobs adviser in 2009. A bestselling author, Van is also founder of Green for All, a national organization working to build a green economy. Follow him on Twitter @VanJones68. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.
Congratulations, Internet haters! Well done, keepers of the one-true-way-to-talk-about-race!
If we don’t tamp down the backlash against Starbucks “Race Together” campaign, I fear that no major corporation will even try to talk about race again – for maybe 10 or 20 years.
Is that really what we want?
Look, I get it. Asking baristas to hold conversations about race is a lot to demand of already hard-working employees. Not to mention, the topic should probably be called “systematic racism,” not just “race.” And there are legitimate questions about what Starbucks could realistically hope to accomplish, here.
But for crying out loud! In the past 48 hours, racial justice activists have spilled more digital ink criticizing Starbucks for trying to fight racism than they have against other (actually racist) companies. The truth is that we cannot have it both ways. We cannot demand that companies address race, and then attack them when they try.
Yes, it seems like harmless fun to pile on or retweet the snark. At some point, all of us have enjoyed the cheap thrill one gets by kicking around a big company online. But the cost this time is that no corporation will want to do anything creative or constructive on racial subjects for a very long time.
In fact, some activists are responding with such little sympathy, empathy and grace, that other corporations are like to run the other way. Again, is that what we want?
Mellody Hobson, an African-American member of the Starbucks board and a personal friend, is a major supporter of this campaign. How will other corporate boards react in the future when a minority member encourages the company to publicly address issues of racial inclusion?
Starbucks is trying to make a positive difference. If the company gets rewarded, others will follow. But nobody wants their brand to get beaten up.
At some point in the future, activists will launch an online petition or protest against a company guilty of some legitimately racist behavior. But how seriously will anyone take us, when even the “good guys” end up getting kicked in the teeth and called racist – for trying to OPPOSE bigotry?
Modern science tells us that bias lives on, in even the most dedicated anti-racist. The only cure is talking about it. Our country needs more open discussion of race, not less.
Companies who try to further that discussion should be rewarded, even if their initial attempts are imperfect. We can put forward suggestions and criticisms in a constructive manner: “This is a great first step, Corporation! Here are five ways to improve the campaign – and make it even better.” I think any human anywhere would be open to hearing that kind of feedback.
But nobody wants to be called an idiot, just for trying.
Unfortunately, today’s vicious backlash against Starbucks could become a case study in proving that – when it comes to race – no good deed goes unpunished.
Ironically, after all this is over, Starbucks will still sell plenty of lattes. The people who will suffer the most are the ones who said they wanted a conversation on race in the first place – but then wouldn’t take “yes” for an answer.