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The Convenient Colorblindness of Howard Schultz

The former Starbucks chairman and likely 2020 independent said he doesn’t see race, becoming a cautionary tale for actual presidential candidates

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz speaks at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IndSchultz Purdue, West Lafayette, USA - 07 Feb 2019

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz speaks at Purdue University.

Michael Conroy/AP/REX/Shuttersto

Howard Schultz was never going to be able to avoid what happened in that Philadelphia Starbucks. Over the past two nights, the billionaire former coffee chain chairman has been asked about the arrests of two African-American businessmen, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, in a Center City Starbucks last April, and event that led to a national conversation about racial profiling. Shortly before he left the company, Schultz ordered every single Starbucks in America to undergo racial-bias training on account of the incident. However, these past two nights, he has incorrectly described what happened.

“In a matter of minutes, a verbal problem occurred,” Schultz told his Philadelphia audience on Wednesday, echoing what he said on CNN the night before. “And she decided that she felt a threat, and she called 911.”

But town hall attendee Melissa DePino, who captured video of the event, countered Schultz. “You are not describing the incident accurately and the way you are describing it is perpetuating the problem,” DePino said, according to AP. “And I know you want to be part of the solution and I hope you will be, but when you say there were words between the two of them, and she felt threatened, that didn’t happen. I saw it with my own two eyes. I was there.”

Schultz pivoted, asserting that the white manager admitted to him that she “probably” wouldn’t have called 9-1-1 had the two businessmen been white. But we knew that already. The true headline is that Schultz, who is currently in the midst of a boring book tour disguised as a hopeless independent presidential campaign, added a false undertone of black male aggression to the story for some unknown reason, essentially justifying the manager’s decision to profile.

I would like to know why he said that, considering another quote of his that is now going viral. I’m referring to the other part of his CNN answer, in which Schultz said:  “As somebody who grew up in a very diverse background as a young boy in the projects, I didn’t see color as a young boy and I honestly don’t see color now.” Schultz said that with a straight face to Orgena Keener, a black café owner. I wish the camera had been on her.

Schultz’s convenient colorblindness is, first and foremost, a cautionary tale for the people who are running serious campaigns for president. Most of the prospective Democratic candidates have racial bonafides they are trying to prove, whether as a virtue of their whiteness or their own records. As Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker can attest, melanin has not insulated them from criticism when it comes to addressing race. The most basic thing that a candidate can do is to see their potential voters. When Schultz brags he doesn’t see race, he is saying that he doesn’t see me. I don’t mean physically, because as we know, blackness is not necessarily a matter of shade or style. My blackness is inherent to who I am. It not only lives in my epidermis, but in my history, in my soul and certainly in the policies that govern my daily reality.

As he has injected himself into our political discourse, Schultz hasn’t had one interesting or thing to say about the country. He has no discernible platform beyond a kind of bland nationalistic evangelism, rejecting a Democratic Party that no longer concedes quite as much to billionaires like himself. Rejecting Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal as unrealistic and even unpatriotic, Schultz has promoted little more than a neoliberal version of Make America Great Again, a centrist mess that is palatable for the plutocrat and the white moderate alike. Hell, people in Seattle still can’t stand him for selling the Supersonics to ownership that everyone but him seemed to know would move the team to Oklahoma City. No one likes this dude, except a handful of Republicans. It is little surprise that in a poll last week, only 4 percent of voters said that they were very likely to back him, and studies show that a Schultz candidacy would only help Donald Trump’s re-election effort.

He is easy to dismiss, and to this point, that is admittedly what I have done. When he said that rubbish about not seeing color, echoing past simpletons who think that they have either transcended race or that making those differences invisible is the solution, I finally found him useful.

However, people running for president — or even hinting at it — have an undue influence on the economy of ideas. It matters that we take account of what Schultz actually said. His remark is couched within a false narrative of poverty, this idea that he grew up “in the projects.” As HuffPost’s Rebecca Klein reported, he lived in public housing in Canarsie, on the outskirts of Brooklyn, in 1970 — but the complex was more than 90 percent white and the average family income there was about $70,000 in today’s dollars. (It is $23,000 now.) This is not some kind of cosmic accident, and it isn’t as if that area has been immune to the challenges posed by racism. Schultz may not want to recognize race, but seems ready to exploit an aesthetic of poverty that is closely tied to blackness.

We cannot ignore that race is a big reason why we’re dealing with Schultz now. He used conspicuous social-justice stances at Starbucks, along with the occasional op-ed, to position himself for this moment. Remember that “Race Together” campaign four years ago that was supposed to start that nuanced National Conversation about racial comity as you were waiting for your latte? Since then, Schultz spoke out against Trump’s xenophobic policies and rhetoric, pledging that Starbucks would hire 10,000 refugees globally by 2022. The racial-bias training in the wake of the Philadelphia incident was the coup de gras, setting the stage for a presidential run by a corporate CEO. Without the pain suffered by black and brown folks, including Nelson and Robinson, Schultz likely doesn’t have this platform.

The former Starbucks chairman is proud to admit that he underwent that same training along with his former employees. It was based upon a curriculum developed by stalwarts like Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, NAACP Legal Defense Fund president Sherrilyn Ifill and former Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder (who may also end up running in 2020). Whether it changed Starbucks’ culture, I can’t say. I just want to be able to go and get a piece of banana bread — or not — and then sit down with my laptop without being harassed. (I may be the only journalist in America who doesn’t drink coffee.)

Schultz got what he needed out of that training, apparently. It may seem somewhat ironic that Schultz is giving a boost to this particular incumbent, given that he set up his run with a series of actions that were ostensibly aimed at racial reconciliation. But both he and Trump are exploiters. Schultz used race to get here, but apparently is now all but done with it. While the president’s policies stem from a longer history of demonstrably racist actions and personal bigotry, Schultz’s willful blindness would prove no less harmful were he ever to be elevated to a position of power. Unfortunately, given his media perch, that is what is happening prematurely.

This is a country sick with systemic racism, and the person running it is a virus. Whomever replaces him needs to be prepared to tackle this issue. It seems almost elementary to say that we need a president who not only “sees color,” but puts forth policies to eliminate racial discrimination. Though Schultz was already a terrible candidate, saying, “I honestly don’t see color now” fully disqualified him from any consideration. It makes it difficult for me to take him seriously as an adult, let alone a candidate.

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