By Ellen McGirt
February 13, 2019

Howard Schultz’s possible independent bid for U.S. president has had a rocky start.

At first, the avowed centrist seemed surprised by a wave of concern from anti-Trump voters, fearing he’d split the contest and offer the unpopular incumbent a path to a second term.

And while he’s been willing to articulate a strong dislike for the divisive rhetoric and gamespersonship that characterizes modern politics, his solutions, so far, have been light on details.

Here’s just one of several examples from his town hall last night on CNN.

I think we can have more balanced and more sensibility around this issue while respecting and honoring the second amendment. I have a hard time understanding why people need to carry an AR-15 around the streets where they live. It is hard for me to understand that. I respect the issues of sportsman and hunting and all things that go with gun ownership. Anyone who has a criminal record or mental health problems, there needs to be a lot more jurisdiction on how those people are buying those weapons. We should take a look at this. Now the far right once again does not want to do anything in the issue. The far left wants to do everything possible to remove guns completely. I am in the middle.

But one exchange last night landed with a familiar thud.

“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,” he explained. He had been talking about the incident in Philadelphia last April, in which two black Starbucks customers were arrested while waiting for a friend to arrive. A white manager called the police on the men, sparking a boycott and protests nationwide. He described it as “a terrible moment for the company.”

While I recognize that “not seeing color” has long been a go-to phrase for people who want to appear fair and unbiased, it no longer serves its purpose. I’d argue it never did.

And, by the way, it’s also not true. Schultz sees color. It’s been on his leadership plate for a while now.

Schultz, along with Starbucks executives, has made significant attempts to address racial and other inequities, which includes a refugee hiring program and opening new stores and related community development programs in underserved zip codes. (This was after Magic Johnson convinced Schultz to let him created a program introducing Starbucks to black neighborhoods, I should note.)

When the Trump Administration’s executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations took effect, Starbucks offered free legal advice to any worried employee. In 2016, they began hosting voter registration drives specifically in neighborhoods with recent racial incidents – like Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Ferguson, Missouri.

I attended one such event held in a park in Queens, NY, where one long-ago Starbucks employee, Nishon Rivers, told me that Schultz is nothing less than a local hero. “What Howard is doing, is giving the black youth a chance,” she said, trailing after the CEO like a fan.

And credit is due: After the “incident” in Philadelphia, Starbucks leadership took public responsibility and made bias mitigation training a national conversation.

That’s why the enduring “I don’t see color!” and the equally cloying, “there’s only one race, the human race!” are such insidious microaggressions. They sound so noble and yet do so much harm.

When you are unwilling to see a person’s color, you don’t see their fears, their experiences, their needs, their beauty, or how their lives are different from your own. And you don’t see how the unique contours of a racial caste system have affected their communities for generations.

As a result, general prescriptions, like “everyone needs health care,” will fail to address the specific set of circumstances that have led to tragically unequal outcomes. If you don’t see the pregnant black woman facing terrible odds, then neither will her doctor. If you don’t see the Latinx fourth grader being disproportionately singled out for discipline in school, then neither will their teacher. If you don’t see the value in non-white imaginations, then neither will film producers.

That’s why these words matter.

So, while it is disappointing to see Schultz struggle, it’s good that these familiar tropes are being discussed and dismissed. Unfortunately, there’s no middle ground here. “I don’t see color,” as well-meaning as it sounds, has long been a haven for people who want easy, comfortable answers for complex, uncomfortable problems.

And, it can make you miss the blind spots in a system, for example, that allows certain baristas to see black men just fine – as suspects.

 

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