Starbucks, Race and Cities

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz writes “Race Together” on a coffee cup in a Starbucks shop.  Source: washingtonpost.com

So Starbucks wants to initiate a national conversation about race.  Since I write about cities, and Starbucks is perhaps our nation’s leading gentrification early warning system, I’ll take them up on it.

Last week, Starbucks said they would encourage their baristas to engage customers in a “race together” discussion.   Perhaps the attempt at sparking a discussion is noble and laudable, but public criticism was swift.  Much of the criticism stems from the lack of training that Starbucks’ baristas have in dealing with such emotionally charged discussions.  Part of it also comes from uncomfortable customers who simply want their coffee, and nothing else.  However, I think most of the criticism is rooted in the fact that the nation is not ready for such a conversation.

Why?  Because white people are not ready for the conversation.

I consider this unfortunate, because the return-to-cities movement nationwide represents perhaps the best chance at racial and ethnic engagement in decades.  Sadly, such engagement is not happening.  White residents are inhabiting formerly largely minority inner cities in growing numbers,  But the opportunity for racial, ethnic, social, cultural and economic integration, and the policy reforms necessary to make it happen, are slipping away.  In fact, I envision a not-too-distant future whereupon the demographic transformation currently underway in our metro areas is complete, and we will find ourselves with greater distance between groups, and not less.  We need to get this right.

As I often do, I look to Detroit for examples of how this plays out.  First, the story of James “Walking Man” Robertson, whose 21-mile daily walking commute was documented, received a “happy ending” when it was revealed that he received more than $360,000 in charitable donations, was given a 2015 Ford Taurus by a local dealership and has relocated to a suburban location just a 20-minute drive from his job.  Yes, he’s joined the ranks of the many who made the conscious choice to do what he did.  But the city is missing all the lessons — the inadequate regional public transit system, the low pay of low-skill factory jobs, and the simple lack of jobs within Detroit relative to its suburbs — that made Robertson’s story so big.

More recently, Nolan Finley, a white and conservative columnist for the Detroit News, bravely noted once again the lack of African-American involvement in the revitalization of the nation’s most black large city.  Citing a study done by Detroit blogger Alex B. Hill, which found that blacks often make up less than 20 percent of the people involved in many of the foundations, institutions and innovation programs that are taking an active lead in the city’s revitalization — in a city that is 83 percent black — Finley is concerned:

“It’s about more than optics. The people coming out of these revitalization programs are the likely future business and civic leaders of Detroit. They’re getting ground floor exposure and experience.

If African-Americans aren’t more fairly represented we are inviting a future in which racial relations continue to be strained, conspiracy theories multiply and mistrust threatens Detroit’s potential.”

Of even greater interest, however, are the comments that flow from the above stories.  The comments, assumed to be from white readers, seem full of defensiveness, resentment and even hostility.  There are no broader lessons to be learned, they argue.  Without calling out specific comments, the sentiments can be characterized by the following statements:

  • “Robertson’s journey to work was a choice, and he was rewarded for making a bad one.” 
  •  “Detroit’s revitalization is an opportunity for everyone to participate in.” 
  • “Blacks had their chance to do something with the city, and look how well that worked out.” 
  • “Why does everything have to boil down to race, anyway?”

Such defensiveness, resentment and hostility is the chief obstacle to effective conversations on race and true reform, and does indeed inhibit the true development potential of the large cities where minorities are still a substantial presence.

I’ve recently come across academic work that corroborates this belief.  Robin DiAngelo, a professor from Westfield State University in Massachusetts who specializes in the study of race relations, wrote an academic paper some four years ago in which she coined the term “white fragility”.  The term is meant to describe the set of responses often given by whites when confronted with challenges to their own (subconscious) racial identity.

DiAngelo, who is white, describes “white fragility” as responses to racial stress, or the presentation of racialized issues, that threaten whites’ understanding of racial dynamics, In the paper, she presents a fascinating list of triggers that prompt a defensive response by whites, and the perceived challenges that they react to:

• Suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint comes from a racialized
frame of reference (challenge to objectivity);

• People of color talking directly about their racial perspectives (challenge
to white racial codes);

• People of color choosing not to protect the racial feelings of white people
in regards to race (challenge to white racial expectations and need/entitlement
to racial comfort);

• People of color not being willing to tell their stories or answer questions
about their racial experiences (challenge to colonialist relations);

• A fellow white not providing agreement with one’s interpretations (challenge
to white solidarity);

• Receiving feedback that one’s behavior had a racist impact (challenge to
white liberalism);

• Suggesting that group membership is significant (challenge to individualism);

• An acknowledgment that access is unequal between racial groups (challenge
to meritocracy);

• Being presented with a person of color in a position of leadership (challenge
to white authority);

• Being presented with information about other racial groups through, for
example, movies in which people of color drive the action but are not in
stereotypical roles, or multicultural education (challenge to white centrality).


This defense mechanism is central to our lack of a productive conversation on race.

There are other obstacles to effective race conversations and true reform.  One is the difference of opinion between whites and minorities on the origins and applications of racism.  Minorities generally believe racism to have a systemic and institutional nature; institutions that have societal sanction, like government, our courts, law enforcement, schools, and businesses and institutions that impact where and how we live, enact policies that may not have racial intent but do have disparate racial impact.  This leads many minorities to believe that “racism is all around us” — wherever society’s institutions are, so is underlying racist intent.  Whites, however, often seem to believe that racism is the work of “unenlightened” individuals.  Racists are “bad people” who learned to hate at an early age, and are bad apples whose bigotry should be destroyed.  Most whites work very hard to disassociate themselves from “bad apples”.

Whites (rightfully) acknowledge the decline in such outward discrimination in American society, but seem to have little understanding of systemic or institutional frameworks that keep true integration from happening.  In fact, because of this systemic/individual duality, when minorities try to articulate slights based on race, whites perceive them as personal attacks on their character, or attacks on institutions they cherish,   Ferguson, MO is an excellent example of this.  Much of the resistance to the protesters in Ferguson’s Black Lives Matters movement seems rooted in restoring the good name of the city’s police officers, and overlooking the role that police — as an institution — have played in the city.

The other obstacle to a true race conversation is that, as the professor DiAngelo said, whites are generally invested in protecting and confirming their worldview, rather than expanding it.  Few seem to be seeking out new information about minorities and their interaction with them, and it severely limits opportunities for effective engagement.  A recent study of Chicago gentrification Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson and doctoral student Jackelyn Hwang discovered how this manifests itself in cities:

“Sampson and doctoral student Jackelyn Hwang used Google Street View to scour thousands of streets for signs of gentrification. Their findings were stark. After controlling for a host of other factors, they found that neighborhoods an earlier study had identified as showing early signs of gentrification continued the process only if they were at least 35 percent white. In neighborhoods that were 40 percent or more black, the process slowed or stopped altogether…

Sampson said the key finding “is that the predominantly black, seriously discriminated-against neighborhoods in Chicago and many other American cities aren’t reaping the same benefits from the transformation of cities. In one sense, this is a paradoxical result, because there is evidence that diversity and mixed neighborhoods are the ground floor of gentrification, but this paper shows there are sharp limits to that.”

Is this what people really want to talk about at Starbucks while waiting for their tiramisu latte?
In our cities, as in our workplaces and social environments, whites are going to great lengths to avoid the defensive posture.  When whites are indeed living among other groups in the same neighborhood, it can be as though groups inhabit different planes, never interacting.  Urbanophile Aaron Renn noted this when describing his old Indianapolis neighborhood in the wake of the Ferguson protests:

“I’ve only lived here about eight months, but what I observed is similar to what I previously saw in Fountain Square, a type of parallel societies. In Fountain Square I called this “Artists and Appalachians.” In that case both groups are white. They share the same neighborhood geography, and even patronize some of the same establishments such as Peppy’s Grill and the Liquor Cabinet, but there was little social interaction between them apart from surface pleasantries.

I see the same here, only with a racial dimension. Blacks and whites get along, and even patronize some of the same stores, but there does not appear to be much in the way of real social capital that has developed between the two groups. This leaves the neighborhood extremely vulnerable to racial divisiveness if anything goes wrong.”

A recent article by Richard Florida at Citylab highlighted more work by Harvard doctoral student Jackelyn Hwang that demonstrates the impact of race on defining gentrifying neighborhoods, using gentrifying South Philadelphia for reference:

“(M)any white respondents did not use the “South Philly” name favored by non-white residents, favoring instead newer monikers like “Graduate Hospital,” “G-Ho,” “South Rittenhouse,” and “Southwest Center City.” They often expressed uncertainty about neighborhood boundaries because of the changing nature of the area, and as a result, tended to use more unconventional markers as boundaries.

The map drawn by Melissa, a 30-year-old, college-educated, white resident, demonstrates this approach. She singles out the southern and eastern boundaries of her neighborhood (those with thick, black lines) as “crime areas,” without a neighborhood name. This boundary, as Hwang notes, is a few blocks from Melissa’s home; she places herself firmly outside the crime area.

Hwang points out that the area Melissa and many other white participants singled out as unsafe did not actually have more overall crime. In fact, the vast majority of property crime occurred in the whiter, wealthier areas to the north of Melissa’s “crime area.”

That’s a classic example of signaling race without explicitly saying “AVOID BLACK PEOPLE LIVING HERE.”  It’s what’s happening in Detroit now.  What used to be the vaunted Cass Corridor district is now trendy Midtown.

Far more common, however, is the avoidance by whites of certain areas, the shunning of certain areas, citing an array of fears both real and imagined. 

This jumbled, ambiguous response is why our cities are missing out on a golden opportunity to address the growing issues of economic and social inequality.  A conversation cannot occur when one party airs its concerns, and another party reacts defensively and without reflection.  Or, as DiAngelo concludes in her paper:

“(I)f we can’t listen to or comprehend the perspectives of people of color, we cannot bridge cross-racial divides. A continual retreat from the discomfort of authentic racial engagement results in a perpetual cycle that works to hold racism in place.”

I think I understand better why people don’t want a real conversation on race.

2 thoughts on “Starbucks, Race and Cities

  1. Insightful column, and full of on-target observations, particularly this one:

    Whites, however, often seem to believe that racism is the work of “unenlightened” individuals. Racists are “bad people” who learned to hate at an early age, and are bad apples whose bigotry should be destroyed. Most whites work very hard to disassociate themselves from “bad apples”.

    I have often wondered if our approach to race would be improved if we stopped trying to diagnose whether this or that individual is racist and focused only on whether observable conduct and actions are racist or prejudiced and how to respond when they are. No one can know what is in another's heart or unconscious. So let's focus on behavior, which is observable and actionable.

    For example, if I skid into your back fender, I have committed tangible damage, even though it was unintentional. (Road rage, to extend the analogy, belongs in a whole 'nother category.) I need to make amends for my actions, and debating whether I am a good or evil person doesn't advance the process of repairing your vehicle and holding me accountable for my actions. Just because no harm was intended doesn't mean that no damage was done.

    The fact that white people recognize racism as a bad thing and do not wish to be associated with it is a positive phenomenon. It is not a declare victory & go home achievement but it is a good foundation to build on.

    Having said that, here is the devil's advocate position: it often seems like the only conversation about race that will be accepted as “real” by people of color is white admissions of wrong-doing or wrong-thinking, whether as individuals or on behalf on institutions. Anything else will be condemned as just more expressions of racism. For a lot of white people, talking about race is a damned if you do, damned if you don't prospect.

    Just to position myself in this conversation: I am white, female, middle-aged, with a grad school degree, in a relatively low-wage white collar job in a struggling non-profit in one of our nation's poorest cities. I understand that I possess class and white-skin privilege, though as a woman, I see steady erosion of hard-won gender equity achievements.

    I push back against talk of this or that “bad” neighborhood because I consider it a dog whistle for “where Black people live.” I resent it when anyone tries to make me afraid of my city and my neighbors.

    When we had Ferguson protests, I joined in and lay down and blocked traffic for an hour on a freezing night because shoot first, ask questions later is a terrible law enforcement practice. The next police bullet could kill someone I know and care about.

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  2. Great article, Pete. While Starbucks' initiatve may actually be well intentioned, I think what is really needed are more white people who are conscious anti-racists and activists like Tim Wise to step forward and press for a sustained national dialogue, rather than a commercial corporation pushing the envelope. “White fragilitiy” might still be triggered in some whites, but it may be somewhay more manageable when it is triggered among and by whites themselves than from blacks and other minorities.

    Also, I think whites really need to confront and acknowledge more than anything else, the very real hidden costs–economic as well as social and spiritual–of maintaining the perceived privileges and perks they obtain through even nominally racist institutions and structures. Why is it so important that as I white person, I should be made to feel better than someone else exclusively on account of my skin color, while someone else of a different skin pigmentation gets singled out and stereotyped as a problem before they ever have a legit chance to show their true character? Whatever bit of comfort and even smugness a white person feels when he gets off scott free while a minority endures undue punishment has to be cast out into the open and into public consciousness to be dealt with. The economic opportunities lost to the nation through the persecution and disenfranchisement of minority groups alone would probably be enough to account for our federal debt. Also, spirituality and culturally, what gifts and contributions do we deprive ourselves of when we undermine minorities through racism? It is a weapon of an insidious sort that damages both its target and unwary wielder alike.

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