I had a very specific goal in mind when I bought a ticket to billionaire coffee mogul and potential 2020 presidential candidate Howard Schultz’s book event at the Free Library of Philadelphia on February 13. I had been trying to get a meeting with him ever since I shared the now infamous video of Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson being arrested in my neighborhood Starbucks. As a result of the incident, I started working with Michelle Saahene, the first person to speak up in the Starbucks that day. Together we started From Privilege to Progress, which calls on allies to show up against racism through education, speaking up in their everyday lives and amplifying issues of racial justice in their social media networks.
Michelle and I hoped Starbucks would work with us on a public awareness campaign addressing racism and helping people recognize implicit biases. After all, Schultz’s response to the incident in Philadelphia appeared genuine, and the all-company training seemed like a productive first step. Not to mention he has built his public persona as a socially responsible CEO with an understanding of the crucial issues of race in America.
But then, the night before his book event, Schultz appeared in a CNN Town Hall, where he recounted the story of the day Robinson and Nelson were arrested in the Philadelphia Starbucks. His retelling of the story on CNN now included a fictional “exchange” between the manager and the two men, which caused her to call 911. As a witness to the incident, I knew this wasn’t true. I was confused and frustrated that he would mischaracterize what happened last April. He went on to say that as a child growing up in the projects (which, as it turns out, were predominantly white) that he didn’t see color and that he “honestly doesn’t see color now.” I wondered, had he attended his own company’s racial sensitivity training?
So I took my seat at the Free Library and hoped that the night before had been a fluke. I trusted that he had people around him who had advised him the narrative he shared on CNN was at minimum ignorant, and at worst, damaging, considering his mostly white audience and his position of power.
But again, he misrepresented the story of the incident, this time saying, “in a matter of minutes a verbal problem occurred, and she [the white manager] decided she felt a threat and called 911.”
To be fair, I’m sure she did feel threatened, but not because of anything the two men actually said or did. Instead she defaulted to the all too frequent internalized racist mythology of black danger, which is the very definition of implicit bias — the very same implicit bias that, ironically, Schultz threw big names and money at in his one-day training. I then watched him double down on the “I don’t see color” narrative that is not only factually incorrect but denies the existence and experience of every person of color in this country.
So I did what Michelle and I ask others to do — I spoke up. With a predominantly white audience looking on, I spoke respectfully, telling him the inaccurate way he described the incident was perpetuating the problem. I had hoped that he would acknowledge his mistake, but instead, he defended himself, saying that he had gone against advice to publicly acknowledge that the incident was because of racial bias. It’s common for white people like me to get defensive when called out on their deep-seated internal narratives about race, but I expected more from Schultz, considering that he has continued to portray himself as someone of authority, or at least openness, on the issue.
I was invited to the green room to have a face-to-face conversation with him after the event, and what I found most significant during the short meeting is what he didn’t say. He didn’t say that Robinson and Nelson felt threatened, instead he gave that experience to the white woman, even when eight police officers surrounded the two young men for sitting in a coffee shop in a country where black men are shot for even less. He didn’t say that of course he sees color, and that the only way to make progress against systemic racism is to first acknowledge the experience of people of color in all facets of American life — education, healthcare, criminal justice, to name a few. He didn’t say that white Americans, especially those who proclaim they are “not racist” need to educate themselves about their own biases and how these biases perpetuate a system of inequality.
Both before and during the meeting, members of his staff told me that he is a good man, and that we shouldn’t pick apart his words. But if we can’t hold a self-professed leader in corporate social responsibility who is also considering a presidential run responsible for his words, who can we? Howard Schultz may be a good man, but that has nothing to do with whether or not he is willfully ignorant about the very thing he claims to support. White people are listening. I stood in a roomful of them at the Free Library. What a great opportunity to speak honestly about race and racism. He blew it.
On Thursday, just one day after our meeting, he told The Washington Post’s Tracy Jan that “Of course I understand the issues of racial justice.”
If that’s true, we should expect him to be responsible with his language, particularly among predominantly white audiences who have internalized his public image as knowledgeable about the dynamics of race in America. We should expect him to actually understand what he’s saying when he talks about race and racism, considering that his own anti-bias training videos rejected the concept of color blindness. And most importantly, we should expect him to be held to the high standard that he himself professes for other corporate leaders and politicians.